Table of Contents
November 22: Festival
November 23: Crown
November 27: Hibernation
This blog entry updates daily, expanding on the story of Our November, And Nothing More as it develops.
My character results are as follows:
Honey: Dancer (1)
Killer: Territorial (2)
Leafcutter: Sufficient (4)
Bumble: Durable (1)
Sugarbag: Emotion (2)
Carpenter: Historical (5)
Bamrella the Bidder of Tomorrow
This is the end
This is the end
But this is the pulse
Where beats begin
The Wax-Crowned Queen on her Sugar Throne
Wields a thousand chains
Wields a thousand whips
Wields a thousand hands to build her Hive on the Hill
And a thousand children to replace their sister dead.
“And this one over here? The one with the glasses?” Queen Bamrella gestured to over the bees scampering beneath her. The Hive on the Hill was working at full capacity today, yet Bamrella still hunted for imperfections. Her wings fluttered without tiring. “She’s the one who knows?”
Killer circled above her Queen and nodded. “Heard her yesterday. Blasphemy, I call it!”
They watched the single worker bee scribbling away on her wax paper—the heretic in a spotlit shadow. Bamrella despised conniving underlings, especially those who would wish to leave her Hive on the Hill. The Queen had to keep them focused—had to keep them ignorant. Those who doubted the safety of the Hive would doubt the will of the Queen, and Bamrella needed her workers and drones to remember who kept them safe in the Winter. A bee who spoke out…
“And her name?” Bamrella asked, eyes not budging from her target.
“Carpenter,” Killer stated. “She’s a builder from my batch. Helped with the architecture on the Southern Comb when the heat wave arrived. A clever bee—but she knows too much, right?”
“And what about you, Killer? Would you claim that you know too much as well?” Bamrella turned to her loyal worker, eyes narrowing. “If knowing too much is worthy of death—”
“I don’t know what she knows,” Killer defended herself, her sly and narrowing gaze panicking for a brief moment. “I just know the bookish brat has information that could upturn the Hive as we know it.”
“Then fix the problem,” Bamrella said. “Live up to your namesake.”
* * *
Carpenter crawled into her hexroom, the waxen walls at perfectly measured angles—just like she made them. The little bee shuffled through stacks of old papers, some from as long ago as three years—before Queen Bamrella! Her broodmate, Leafcutter, had found the first stack of notes while scavenging through the dilapidated combs in the Juniper Cluster. Though the combs in that district were off limits, Leafcutter had a way of interpreting rules: ignore first, apologize later.
“It’s all in the seasons!” Carpenter muttered, spreading the notes in a neat array in front of her. “The change—it’s based on seasons. It has to be. I know it has to be! This December Sleep pattern... I know it—”
“Know-it-all, know-it-all, know-it-all. That’s all you do…” a sing-songy voice chirped from the hexroom above Carpenter’s, breaking the bee from her concentration.
“Not now,” Carpenter muttered, trying not to regain focus.
“Whatcha got?” Honey poked her head over so that she was looking down at her neighbor. “Ah, reading... Another exciting night for Carpenter. Don’t you do that a little too much?”
Carpenter swatted at Honey’s head, but the tiny bee simply twitched her little neck and stuck out her tongue.
“Rude!” Honey spat.
“Being nosy is also rude!” Carpenter muttered.
“I like being nosy.”
“If you’re going to be nosy, then you could at least be helpful!”
Honey chuckled, “I’ve done my chores for the day already—”
“Not all help need be chores—”
“Cleaned the baskets, dusted the entrance, waved my tushy-point at a grasshopper that was eyeballing a daisy too hard, sorted pollen… What’s a girl got to do for a nice night of fun?”
Carpenter spoke through a clenched mouth. “Look! I worked as well. It’s what we do. We all work. We get up, we work, we protect the Hive, and we sleep. Day in. Day out…”
“Yeeeah, and you use your downtime to study?” Honey rolled her eyes.
Carpenter jumped to her feet and batted her wings so furiously that she almost popped her stinger out. “If what these notes say are true, we may not have to work for the Hive ever again, Honey!”
For once in her week-long life, Honey stopped talking. She perked up and zipped from her waxroom down to her neighbor’s, eyes scrambling over the papers spread out before them.
“Got your attention?” Carpenter said.
Honey nodded. “I liked the part where you said we won’t have to work.”
* * *
Queen Bamrella stood with her wax crown in front of the Sugar Throne, alone except for one worker bee kneeling before her. Rumor around the Hive on the Hill bid an ill tiding for how Bamrella conducted herself in the throne room: if she were sitting, she was calm—if she were standing, rage bloomed within.
The silence lingered, but the worker never spoke.
“Bumble, is it?” Bamrella ended the silence, appeased with the worker's fealty.
“Aye, ma’am,” the bee responded. She was the largest worker among the whole lot—well-fed and as sturdy as tree bark. Almost as large as the Queen herself. A bee like this one could take ten stings and still remain airborne. “Bumble’s m' name.”
“Are you familiar with the Juniper Cluster?” Bamrella wrung her hands together.
“Juniper Cluster? Aye, ma’am. That area of the Hive's been abandoned for… well, for longer than any but you’ve been around.”
“I don’t want it abandoned.”
Bumble paused. “Aye… we reopenin' the wing or—”
“I want it gone.”
The massive worker bee stuttered a bit, choosing her words with care. She had no reason to doubt the Queen’s words—she was in charge. But eradicating Juniper Cluster came with a rough issue that the Queen may have missed in her oversight.
“Demolishin’ Juniper Cluster means no more Southern Comb. Derelict as it may be, it's still a support structure—”
“I am aware, you ignorant moron!” Bamrella took a step towards her subordinate. “I know that Juniper Cluster’s destruction will lead to the whole of Southern Comb collapsing! You are to do as you are told and not tell anyone, do you understand? I am the one who thinks. You are the one who shuts up and does as she is told."
“Aye… aye ma’am,” Bumble said, bowing before the Queen. “As you say. Keeping mum and doin' what I'm told, yep! That's Bumble! Loyal to ya, my Queen...”
The Queen of the Hive on the Hill dismissed her worker, leaving her at peace. Not even her loyal drones dared to enter until she gave the command. November had begun, and if Bamrella wished to see another November on another year, the workers couldn’t get out of line. No more Juniper Cluster meant no more digging up old information from former Queens, and no more Southern Comb meant a sudden need for working and for birthing new eggs.
Many would die... many thousands.
And many jobs would be open again.
Work, work, work… And then sleep.
A great, long sleep…
This wouldn’t be the first time that Bamrella had the majority of the Hive die during the December Sleep. Such was the way of the world. Such was the will of the Queen. And such would be the years and years to come.
See now the dregs of royal sloth,
Of girls anew
Old girls forgot
The cycle weaves a bitter cloth
A girl will speak,
"We're better off."
And wings once bound, unfettered fly
To race with fate
To take the sky
Forsake the state of slaves in sty
"We're free," she spake,
"And doomed to die."
“This is bad,” Honey fidgeted, her bonnet about to slip off her little head. “This is bad, bad, bad!”
Carpenter waved a hand at Honey’s face. “Shush! If Bamrella didn’t—”
“Well she isn’t my Queen anymore.”
Honey’s eyes bolted open, and for the first time in her sporadic life, she struggled to find her words. “B-b-but if you… You can’t say… That’s a bad thing to say, Carpenter. That’s a bad, bad, bad—”
“Pish posh, pish posh!” Carpenter silenced her companion. “The cold season is coming, and if my suspicions are correct…”
Carpenter shoveled through the dilapidated wax debris in the Juniper Cluster. She had received a message from Leafcutter early that morning that explained more of Leafcutter’s suspicions. Since all bees obeyed every word from the Queen, then Bamrella never bothered eradicating precious information from Juniper Cluster—the massive Hive network and throne room of the late Queen Juniper. And since Bamrella banned every bee from digging through Juniper Cluster, she never worried that any of her children would dare dig through the histories of forgotten Queens.
But Leafcutter wasn’t like all bees.
Leafcutter had been digging through Juniper Cluster ever since she could fly—gobbling up any information regarding the swarm’s ethos. A survivalist by spirit, Leafcutter preferred to stay prepared, and she had planted the idea in Carpenter’s ear that not all bees needed a Queen: which was heresy! But after parting enough scandalous ideas into Carpenter’s ears, Leafcutter had already sown the seeds for independence within her friends.
As much as Carpenter trusted Leafcutter's belief that Queens didn't have their workers' needs in check, Carpenter needed proof.
“Here!” Carpenter shouted, prying out a half-melted trunk with Queen Juniper’s seal on it. “This matches the symbol Carpenter showed me.”
Honey helped set the trunk down, and the two little bees hovered in the air, tracing the trunk with their fingers.
“Smells like royal jelly to me,” Honey said, licking it. “Tastes like it too!”
“Right! This was the late Queen Juniper’s,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter hoisted the lid open, her eager eyes scanning the contents. Resting in the trunk were three tablets composed of hardened paper, each one with twelve pieces of parchment.
“More books?” Honey asked, peeking inside.
“Not books. Calendars!” Carpenter pushed Honey aside and tossed the calendars out of the chests. “Queen Juniper used these to plan her days. Three of these with twelve months a piece, that means Queen Juniper lived…” Carpenter carved the numbers into the wax with her stinger. “The former Queen lived for over a thousand days!”
“A thousand?” Honey fell to the ground, her wings unable to keep her stunned body airborne. She gripped her antennae with her hands. “B-b-but bees only live for forty or fifty days at the most.”
Carpenter flipped through the calendars, scanning them for any information about Bamrella. “Here, on all three years… it shows that there are Autumn broods of worker bees like us, and they live for…” Carpenter dropped the calendar. “Over a hundred days…”
Honey snatched up the calendar and nearly shouted, “But we’re an Autumn brood! The brood before us didn’t last for even forty.”
“The brood before us was a Summer brood.”
“And Summer broods don’t last long—because they don’t hibernate.”
Honey wrinkled her face up. “What’s hibernate?”
A third voice joined their own. “It’s when the Hive sleeps.”
They both turned and saw another worker bee hovering above them, stinger out—her stinger was always out. The interloping bee was one of Bamrella’s most loyal subjects, a prideful creature fiercely aware of where boundaries lie—and what measures needed to be taken to ensure such boundaries remained.
“Oh, Killer!” Carpenter tried to cover up the calendars. “I didn’t know you were allowed into Juniper Cluster.”
“I’m not,” Killer muttered, lowering herself down to her peers. “Nobody is.”
Honey piped in, “Well, Queen Bamrella the Bidder of Tomorrow asked us to get the, um, the records from Queen Juniper.” She gave a halfhearted smirk, eyes darting between Killer and Carpenter. “For the upcoming hibernation!”
Killer rolled her eyes. “For hibernation?”
“You didn’t even know what that meant thirty seconds ago—”
Carpenter stopped the back-and-forth nonsense. Their ruse was up. “What are you here for, Killer?”
Killer grinned, her beady eyes bearing down on Carpenter. “For you.”
As Killer raised her stinger, all three bees twitched as the wax ground beneath them shuddered. They looked at each other, then floated upwards as the ground shook again.
“What’s going on?” Honey asked, fidgeting.
“This is new…” Killer said, sheathing her stinger.
“It’s the December Sleep,” Carpenter said, holding one of the calendars in front of her. “It happens every year. Before everyone hides inside the Hive, the Queen kills the... excess.”
“Excess!?” Honey shouted. “What excess?”
Juniper Cluster shook again, this time dislodging a massive wax chunk that bouldered off the edge and collapsed onto the grass below, exploding in a massive chunk.
“We are the excess!” Carpenter shouted.
Killer zoomed upward. Above her, several other bees started to scatter from the Southern Comb—the panic happened without direction, no queenly pheromones to guide the bees to their duties. They scampered in mindless fear, unaware whether their plight came from predator, nature, or within.
“Over there!” Killer pointed. “There’s a fight!”
Killer zipped away. Honey and Carpenter exchanged looks, then abandoned the idea that Killer still wanted to eradicate them—a larger problem had surfaced. Wordlessly, they followed Killer’s trail, hot in pursuit to see what kind of fight she had discovered.
“What is this?” Killer shouted as she approached the scuffle.
This deep within Juniper Cluster, the walls had caved in to the point where the bees couldn’t fly. Shreds of wax and honeycomb criss-crossed in blighted abandon, rotted and mulched with bits of leaves and dirt. Killer landed and crawled to where she had seen two bees at ends with another, emerging within a dark cavern.
Beams of light from outside illuminated the musky, damp area. Cracks opened up in the ceiling to let in more sunbeams as Juniper Cluster began to collapse, and as Honey and Carpenter joined Killer on the precipice, an opening in the ceiling lit up the largest worker bee that any of them had ever seen. She was pinning down a smaller worker bee, one laden down with junk and knickknacks—her survival gear.
“Leafcutter!” Carpenter shouted, then flew across the cavern towards her friend. “Get off her!”
The large bee backed away, her face twisted in a rough mixture of fear, hate, and sorrow. “I-I-I had to do it! Aye, she made me do it!” the large bee said.
“She’s a murderer!” Leafcutter cried, climbing to her feet. Her wings were twisted to the point of being unable to fly, but the rebellious bee refused to bow down. “I found her chewing away the supports down here!”
Killer unsheathed her stinger. “Who gave you the orders?” she shouted at the large bee.
“Her majesty! Queen Bamrella! I had to do it…” the bee mumbled.
Killer winced, fully aware of how Bamrella gave orders. “And you are?”
“Bumble,” the bee spat out. “I was only followin’ orders. I was only—”
Before Bumble could finish, half of the ceiling shattered from its moorings, and sheets of wax crumbled into the cavern. Honey and Carpenter zipped out of the way, bulldozing into Killer and Leafcutter, pushing them out of the oncoming danger. Bumble tried to fly, but the chunk of wax collapsed onto her, kicking brittle pieces of dry honeycomb and dust into the air.
“We have to leave!” Leafcutter pushed herself to her feet. “The Hive is doomed.”
Carpenter shook her head. “Not doomed. Just… reduced.” She clenched her fists. “It’s always reduced during the December Sleep.”
Leafcutter scrunched up her face, unsure of Carpenter’s words, but before she could say anything, Bumble burst unscathed through the sheet of wax that had fallen on her. She shook the dried honeycomb off of her hairs, but the sunken horror in her face showed that as sturdy as she was on the outside, she would never learn to live with her actions.
“… Orders…” Bumble said.
“To hell with your orders. Come on!” Leafcutter shambled over to Bumble and crawled onto her back. “You’re a big gal. Get us out of here!”
“Just follow orders!” Killer added.
Killer’s words shook Bumble out of her stupor, and the big bee tore into the sky, abandoning the Hive as the Southern Comb collapsed below. The other three joined her, and Leafcutter clung to her back, eyes focused on the Hive on the Hill.
The Queen’s work now done…
December Sleep had happened.
“The excess…” Carpenter muttered, looking towards Honey. “Heck of a price for others to pay for the rest to live for a hundred days.”
They fluttered away, leaving the Hive and Bamrella to the chaos issued by years of tradition. Aimless, they were. But free.
A silence rattles these our ladies.
No familiar buzzing but their own.
White-knuckle hand in white-knuckle hand.
Doldrum-deafened, this windless world wails,
To a crowd of once slave women
Unfound to the yoke.
Bound only to
They soared into the night, abandoning their sisters and Queen to the chaos ensuing from the dreaded December Sleep. Behind them, a cloud of surviving bees swarmed above the Hive on the Hill—dragging out the dead and dying, no doubt.
Even those who survived and stayed—what then?
With the entire Southern Comb collapsed, thousands of destitute workers would be forced to brave the elements. Abandoned by the Queen, those refugees had no direction or course of duty, each one floundering on their own in a sad attempt to cobble together an existence in exile. And those lucky enough to stay? Yes, they would live on for months during the cold. But their home was now a cage.
Wasn’t it always?
“Carpenter…” Honey said.
But Carpenter didn’t pay the little bee any attention. She kept flying, her mind focused, skipping and jumping over every possible scenario they may encounter. The wilderness beyond the Hive catered as lair to unspeakable monsters, some so terrible—
“Carpenter!” Honey repeated.
—and the bees weren’t strangers to monsters, but a safe Hive and thousands of comrades could stave off any intruder. And the weather! What happens when the cold arrives? How could five bees create their own Hive in so short—
“Huh?” Carpenter hovered in her place, finally snapped out of her thoughts. “What’s going on?”
“We need to rest,” Killer said, pointing at Bumble. “I think Bumble’s about to fall out.”
Leafcutter patted the large bee on her back. “She’s tuckered. A tough one, but even she needs rest from carrying me all day.”
The bees agreed—they had been flying enough. Carpenter never realized exactly how much her wings ached from the ceaseless flying. Normally she would be resting in between flowers, stocking up on nectar and letting her hands get to work. Even with all the flying, on a normal day she could scarf down pollen to keep her strength up. But as her stomach gurgled and her wings seeped with weight, Carpenter concluded that the rest of the night would have to be a desperate sleep with five empty stomachs.
“We need to be on the ground,” Leafcutter said. “Not in a tree. Birds may nab us in the tree—or on the ground as well, but at least on the ground they’re at risk also.”
Carpenter nodded. “The ground then. Let’s start looking.”
The bees parted, staying close enough to hear each other but far enough to scout out the terrain. Honey zipped over to a daisy and stuffed her face with some much-needed pollen, then tore off a petal to make a basket, which she began filling. She would let the others find housing, allowing herself to skip and flit among the flowers. Without having to gather pollen for the whole Hive, Honey grinned in realization that every piece of pollen she gathered was for her and her friends.
What a strange feeling…
Leafcutter steered Bumble, barging through grass, flowers, and through moldy logs so that they could find the best temporary housing. As spiteful as Leafcutter felt towards Bumble’s actions, she couldn’t blame the girl. Bumble was a worker no different than the others back at the Hive—she took orders as she was told. Not everyone could break themselves away from the will of Bamrella like Leafcutter had done. Not everyone learned about joyfulness in independence.
“What about this?” Killer called out, her stinger pointed forward in case she missed a threat. “Looks safe enough to me.”
The other bees gathered around Killer’s peculiar hovel. She had found a hollow, metal cylinder. It was green on the outside with strange markings, and a hole on the side was just the right size for a bee to crawl in—even Bumble could squeeze in. But to everyone's surprise the bottom of the container had a puddle of sweet-smelling, clear liquid.
Leafcutter climbed off Bumble and scampered to the front of cylinder. She took a sip of the liquid inside. “Sugar!” she shouted, then dove her face into the juice. “It’s perfect!”
“A new home!” Honey clapped her little hands and zipped into the container so fast that she almost snagged her bonnet on the top of the entrance.
Carpenter eyed the cylinder with unease. She had heard of these containers before. They were refuse from other life forms—great life forms of massive size. Could this be their territory? Could this—
A voice from inside the container! The bees stopped moving, their senses on high alert. Carpenter’s hairs stood stiff, and she crept towards the mouth of the metal cylinder. The other bees backed away, but Killer flitted to the top of the cylinder and roosted above the opening, her stinger ready to defend the others.
Carpenter waved her antennae to keep Killer back. “Who goes there?” she called into the can.
The voice whimpered back from the darkness, “I… I found this first!”
“She sounds small,” Killer muttered. “I can make it quick.”
“Hail you from Queen Bamrella’s Hive on the Hill?” Carpenter ignored Killer and pressed the voice for more information.
The voice hesitated before answering back. “Y-y-yes. From the Old Cross Abbey District.”
“Old Cross Abbey…” Bumble whispered as though in a daze. “Safe place… wasn’t held up by the Juniper District—nope!”
Carpenter crawled into the cylinder. Her feet scraped along the thin metal, and as she flicked her wings, their filmy buzzing echoed inside. “I’m Carpenter. I’m from the Southern Comb. Most of us are. Queen Bamrella had part of the Hive on the Hill destroyed…”
“I know. I know… I just…” The speaker stepped forward, and her antennae touched Carpenter’s. “I was harvesting, like always. But when I flew back, everything…” She took a deep breath and let it out. “I saw everyone dying. So I came back here, where I work…”
Carpenter shook her head. “Not everyone died. But enough.”
“You said Queen Bamrella did it?”
“Her orders, yes. The December Sleep. Part of the Hive dies so that the rest can hibernate with the remaining resources.”
The other bee stayed silent, but Carpenter didn’t need words to know her thoughts. The bee’s pheromones gave Carpenter all the information she needed. The bee was scared, alone, and desperate to keep going—so desperate that she made camp in a metal piece of trash for the night. Just like Carpenter and the others were planning.
“I’m Sugarbag,” she finally said. “And I don’t know what to do.”
“None of us do,” Leafcutter spoke up, now crawling into the metal canister.
“We weren’t meant to make decisions,” Killer added.
“Just followin’ orders…” Bumble muttered, her eyes drifting to the ground.
Honey chirped up above all the others, “But Carpenter knows what to do!”
Carpenter’s antennae stood on end. “What?”
“Yep! If there’s someone who knows what’s going on—it’s Carpenter!” Honey didn’t relent her speech. “Carpenter found out what the December Sleep was. Carpenter knows how to make quick decisions when none of us know where to go. And Carpenter is never one to back down while there is someone in need.”
“Oh let’s not get too ahead of ourselves,” Carpenter muttered. “I mean, Leafcutter told me about the old throne room in Juniper Cluster!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you were the only one who could make sense of it,” Leafcutter said, slapping Carpenter on the back. “I’d have thought it was more trash. You’re the one who dug up its meaning—and we’re all alive because of that!”
Honey leapt into the air. “Hail Queen Carpenter!”
“To Queen Carpenter!” Leafcutter joined in.
The other bees repeated the cheer, and for the first time in her little life, Carpenter felt a sense of pride welling within her. Not a personal pride that elated her above the others—but a wave of accomplishment and worth. Here she was, formerly one in thousands—now one in six. And these others trusted their well-being to her now?
They liked her.
They needed her.
“We stay here for tonight only,” Carpenter said, tracing a hand through the sugary liquid on the curvy metal bottom. “From what Sugarbag said, it sounds like we’re still in the territory of the Hive on the Hill. I don’t plan on bumping into any of Bamrella’s patrols. Eat what we can tonight, then fill up on this sweet syrup in the morning. It’s enough energy to fuel us the whole day—like honey, but manufactured in a different Hive. Leafcutter should have her wings back by then, and she can help guide us elsewhere. Right?”
Leafcutter nodded. “I’ve been exploring these lands ever since I learned how to ignore Bamrella’s commands.”
“I’ll keep watch,” Killer said. “A night without sleep never slowed me down before.”
“Sounds good,” Carpenter said. “Sounds… perfect!”
They slept well that night in the soda can beneath the stars. Six little bees without a Hive—but with a Queen-in-Name nonetheless.
Bendiwood, the Grafthome
Life isn't fleeting
Life is a fleet
And the time for unfurled sails
But Hiveless girls are throneless girls,
Though they be mavericks.
These girls are Queens and Queens need thrones
And this new throne seats six.
They woke to the chatter of foreign mouths in monstrous form—tall beasts conversing back and forth in a mystic tongue. Honey was the first to stir, her curiosity overriding her caution, and she crawled out the mouth of the soda can to peer outside.
Ten feet from their location, two tall creatures sat across from one another on the grass. Honey had heard of them from the other bees—they were builders, makers, travelers, and self-made Queens of their own world. Their Hives reached the heavens and beyond, sojourning their thrones into realms never seen by bee or bug.
“They’re the People,” Sugarbag said, waking up and nestling next to Honey. “They live around here. Those two are young, though. Their Hive is close, but there are more Hives farther off.”
“More Hives?” Honey said, stunned. “Bigger than the Hive on the Hill?”
“Much bigger,” Sugarbag said, crawling out of the can and helping Honey up so that they were hovering in the air.
“How much bigger?”
“As big as—”
“Ten times bigger?”
“Well, they’re actually—”
“Twenty times bigger?”
“Honey, if you’d calm down—”
But Honey had already zipped toward the two People, leaving the dew-dimpled grass below. She had never seen People before—only heard the tales. Some were dangerous, according to her other broodmates. The dangerous ones would secrete toxic mist that killed bees instantly, like a rain of death. Or they would swat bees to death!
But there were good ones.
Honey liked the stories about the good ones..
There were People who built Hives for bees, keeping sanctuaries of flowers and fruits and vegetables so that the bees could have all the pollen and nectar they could ever want. These People could raise several Hives all in one place, and the Queens formed counsels—good Queens! These were Queens of a utopian world, where nobody was ever without food or home. In exchange for the protection, the bees in these Hive worlds had to offer up honey and sugar to the People sometimes, but it was a worthy offering for a life without misery, without want, and without fear.
Maybe these People were the good ones?
Honey somersaulted above the two People, eyeballing their actions. They sat on either side of a square piece of wood with little red and black squares on it. The People then slid black and red circles around on the board, laughing or groaning after some of the actions. It was a peculiar sight for Honey, who had never seen this kind of work before. What purpose did the little circles have? Was this a way for the People to communicate, much like bees used writing and pheromones? Was one of the People trying to tell the other one about a particularly large field of flowers that was full of pollen?
Sugarbag tackled Honey in the air and pulled her away from the People. “That’s dangerous to do!”
“But these People look nice—”
“They’re children, Honey. They’re not grown enough to know if we’re safe or dangerous.”
Honey was dragged by Sugarbag over to a nearby flower where they sat on opposite petals. Honey stared at the People with a confused look. “So, they’re like larvae?” Honey asked.
“Yes, they’re like larvae, you silly little dolt!”
“Hey… I’m not little!”
Sugarbag shook her head. “Never mind. You have to remember that these People can get very scared by us, especially the young ones.”
“But why would People be scared of us?”
As though waiting for the precise moment to intervene, Killer swooped in over Sugarbag’s and Honey’s heads. Her stinger glinted in the morning sun.
“Because we can hurt them,” Killer said, her voice dripping with an eerie glee.
Honey gasped, “Why would we do that?”
Killer shrugged. “Some People get too close to Hives, and when they do, they need to be reminded that bees can fight back. It’s a great cost, though…”
“What cost?” Honey said.
Killer held up her stinger, showing Honey the barbs on the end. “With big creatures like the People, our stingers get stuck in their thick skin. The barbs won’t pull out. Not like with other bugs and insects. If we were to sting those People, our stingers would be stuck in their skin so hard that our insides would literally rip out of our bodies if we tried to pull away!”
Honey almost gagged into the flower. “Ew, that’s a lie!”
“Nope!” Killer almost taunted. “Stinging a giant creature leads to an ultimate sacrifice… there are worse ways to die in this world,” she added, her voice dropping to a sincere timbre.
The three bees sat quietly, watching the People play their game. After a few minutes, Carpenter and the others showed up. Leafcutter’s wings had gotten better, allowing her to fly. She had already started snatching up pieces of twigs, grass, and bits of dirt for whatever project she was planning.
“So there are People here?” Carpenter asked.
Sugarbag nodded. “This is Bendiwood, the People’s Grafthome. The Hive on the Hill only reaches out to this little dwelling—one of the People’s Hives.”
“So there are more Hives of People?” Carpenter said.
“Yes. Westward. I’ve been to it once—but I didn’t want to stray too far. You won’t find any of Queen Bamrella’s patrols—”
“Just Bamrella,” Honey corrected Sugarbag. “She isn’t our Queen anymore.”
“Oh, right! You won’t find any of Bamrella’s patrols deeper within Bendiwood. Too many people for them—but not a bunch.”
Carpenter had an idea. “So what you’re saying is that there are enough People within inner Bendiwood to keep away those who would hurt us, but there are few enough so that they wouldn’t bother us too much?”
Sugarbag shifted on her petal. “I… I suppose that’s right…”
“Good,” Carpenter said. “That’s very good.”
* * *
The bees soared across the rural Bendiwood township, overtaking the outer farmlands and reaching the more populated central area. The bees had never seen so many People in their lives, nor dreamed that the People could live the way they did—the People’s own Hives were as massive as trees, and they traveled in strange contraptions of rust and metal that moved faster than even the quickest bees. Upon reaching the center of the Grafthome, the bees almost fainted from the sight—crossing roadways and Hive structures stacked side by side filled the area. Patches of trees and bushes and flowers and ponds were scattered among the structures, just enough for the bees to feed and supply themselves.
“I had no idea…” Leafcutter stuttered, stunned by the resourcefulness. “I thought I was sufficient with my preparations…”
“How about it, Bumble? Does it look like home?” Carpenter asked Bumble, trying to rouse the girl from the somber attitude that followed Juniper Cluster’s destruction.
Bumble smiled for the first time since—had she ever smiled? “It’s a home," she said. "It’s our new Hive…”
"What is that?"
"As a Queen does!"
"The worker shall now!"
A sewing needle doesn't choose silk
Nor an axe decide its timber
Does a tong deduce the taste of milk?
Or a fire define an sh-soot ember?
Killer buzzed out of the chimney stack and fluttered into the low morning. They had found an abandoned cabin, once a great home for the People, in the back yard of a larger, occupied dwelling. Each of the twenty or so houses in this little neighborhood had several acres—each household with its own territory.
Killer approved of these People.
They liked keeping their space.
But Killer didn’t wake up before her friends to marvel at the People’s architecture and living quarters. She had smelled a familiar scent wafting along the breeze, followed by the tiny shimmer of wings that meant trouble lurked nearby.
She hovered away from the chimney, keeping the slack-tiled roof to her left. Killer worked better with restricted flight, especially when her opponent held a natural advantage over her. Confined spaces were best, but she knew better than to try and lure the foe down the chimney.
So she waited, like bait in the open—
The robber fly struck from below, dashing upward, ready to clasp Killer in its deathgrip. The long-bottomed bug zipped past her, its wings flickering in the cool air. Killer had heard the bug approaching mere seconds before it swooped at her, and she ducked towards the shingled roof, rolling out of the way and landing on all six feet.
In no time, the robber fly doubled back, aiming straight at Killer. She waited, stinger out, then dashed backwards as the robber fly collided into the roof. Had she not moved, the robber fly would have pinned her dead beneath its terrifying grip.
So she lashed out with her stinger, flicking the barbed end over and over, sticking the robber fly once in the thorax and then again under one of its wings. The robber fly retaliated, its proboscis jabbing back, trying to stick Killer so that it could devour her innards like several other bees it had encountered in its brief life.
But Killer didn’t relent. She jabbed once more with her stinger, this time not retracting it for more stings. Instead, she kicked off the roof, sending her and the robber fly tumbling down the angled battleground. The robber fly lost its direction and flailed in disoriented confusion, but Killer kept her head. She curled her stinger, digging it upward, churning up the robber fly’s guts until she wrapped the barb around a particular meaty chunk.
Right before the two of them tumbled over the edge of the roof, Killer pulled back, dragging out the robber fly’s innards. The creature curled up in her grasp, then it fell limp, its corpse rolling over the side of the roof and colliding into—
A second robber fly slammed into Killer just as the first one disappeared, and it held her still on the side of the roof. A wave of shame washed over Killer—how could she have kept her guard down? Out in this wilderness, no monster could be considered alone, and though she had slain one of the dangerous predators, even she would fall victim to—
The robber fly toppled off of Killer and fell over the roof’s edge. As Killer regained her senses, she barely caught sight of a large, black and yellow shape rolling in the robber fly’s grip. It was the biggest worker bee Killer had ever seen, one so large and sturdy that it was able to tear down Juniper Cluster in less than a day.
Bumble held the second robber fly, dragging it off the roof with her. She felt the robber fly’s proboscis digging into her, stabbing where it could, trying as hard as possible to end her life, but Bumble ducked and took the attacks head on—yes, she was bleeding, but she still lived. As she kept the robber fly at bay, she barely noticed Killer soaring off the roof and tumbling down after them. Right before they crashed into the bushes below, the robber fly froze in place.
Killer slid her stinger out of the robber fly’s head, then flung the dead bug out of Bumble’s grip before all three of them crashed into the ground.
The two bees returned to the chimney. They were beaten, but alive.
“Well done,” Killer said, patting Bumble on the back. “They almost had me…”
“Almost…” Bumble said.
* * *
“Two robber flies?” Carpenter asked.
The bees gathered at the bottom of the shack’s fireplace. They stood on top of a pile of old, coal-black logs. The soot and smokey inside kept spiders and other predators away—but none of them considered a robber fly attack would come this early into their new settlement.
“Aye, but we did them in,” Bumble said, looking at Killer. “Says she’s not used to doin’ it on her own. She’s used to havin’ a whole swarm, y’know? Told her she ain’t alone. We’re swarm enough.”
Carpenter nodded, impressed at Bumble’s resilience “True, but still, we can’t let that happen again. Spiders and mantids and birds are avoidable if we play it safe, but if this world of the People has robber flies...”
Honey shivered. “They’re like ghosts! Sneaking and striking even when you’re in the sky!”
“And what if Bumble wasn’t there to help you?” Sugarbag called out Killer. “You’d have been gone—and you’re the strongest!”
“It’s my job to be the first to die,” Killer said with an air of pride. “It’s what I was meant to do. Front line attacks, quick defenses, astute delivery. Killing is what I do, and getting killed is how I’m supposed to leave this world. All part of the job.”
“Well your job needs a lot more killing and a lot less getting killed,” Carpenter scolded the bee. “Your heroism isn’t unappreciated. But we don’t need dead heroes. We need live ones. The next time you suspect a predator is nearby, let some others know. Bumble and Leafcutter and I are more than capable of fighting alongside you.”
“Hey, what about me?” Honey whined.
“You are literally wearing a bonnet and licking a petal-cup of pollen as we speak,” Carpenter said.
Honey stopped licking the petal-cup and examined herself up and down. “A bonnet doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t know how to defend myself!”
“Yeah, but it makes you look like a child—which you practically are,” Leafcutter said.
Honey huffed and went back to licking her petal-cup of pollen.
“So what do we do?” Sugarbag asked, eyes focused on the ashy coals. “There will be more robber flies. There are probably more out there right now.”
“Aye, there are…” Bumble said. “I’m sure of it.”
“They’re not going anywhere,” Killer said. “And neither are we, right?”
Carpenter thought for a long moment and weighed the options. They could stay here and keep fighting off robber flies until the predators eventually overthrew them, or they could once again pick up everything they could and move elsewhere—perhaps another place full of predators.
“I vote we leave,” Sugarbag muttered. “It’s dangerous here.”
“We need to fight,” Killer stood forward, stinger flashing.
“If we fight, we’ll be fighting every day for the rest of our lives," Sugarbag fussed.
Carpenter made her choice. “What about just a few days?”
They all turned towards their elected leader, none of them knowing what she planned.
“Killer, you can hear a robber fly coming from a ways off, right?”
“Yes. I’ve fought them plenty of times. They don’t surprise me anymore.”
Carpenter clapped her hands together. “It’s settled then. The robber flies won’t be attacking us after a few days if everything goes to plan.”
“Wh-wh-what plan?” Sugarbag muttered.
“There’s a way to keep the enemy away for good,” Carpenter said, smiling. “But it will take a lot of work, and I’ll need everyone… everyone… to follow through. Killer, let’s talk.”
* * *
By the end of the day, the bees had rooted out and slain twelve robber flies.
There would be no more problems from the predators once Carpenter’s plan had reached fruition. Even by dusk’s arrival, the bees were finding the robber flies in ever-decreasing numbers. After three more days of implementing Killer's search-and-destroy tactic, robber flies would trouble them no more in the Grafthome.
Makamira of the Tall Stalk Grove
“Who stands at the gate?”
“Who treads on the way?”
“Who waits at bay?”
“Who speaks that never spoke before?”
“Who knocks at the locked-up lock at the door?”
He woke that morning to the sounds of battle—so he thought. But as Makamira skittered out from the floorboards beneath the People’s abandoned shack, his curiosity waned once he saw that the supposed battle was nothing more than a gathering of bees tearing apart one of the robber flies that plagued the yard of his former master.
Makamira turned back to his hovel beneath the floorboards. Squabbles between bees and robber flies were of no concern to him. As a once and current Emperor, Makamira dreamed of his ancestral home among the groves—as his kinfolk told him. He, like many other Emperors, was born in a slave pen built by the People, meant to be traded and sold as entertainment.
He enjoyed the life with the People at first: bugs delivered daily, a small sun available at all times, and a complete lack of predators. But then the People had to leave.
He couldn’t leave with them.
So Makamira made the best of his new life, roaming this strange new landscape not too unlike the one his great ancestors once roamed. But these bees…
He would make his move later in the day, but until then, he would mull over his plots beneath the People’s shack. The bees could prove useful given due time.
* * *
“A drink for Sugarbag!” Killer shouted, pushing the little worker bee forward. “For obtaining her first true stripe in the day’s duties!”
Sugarbag managed a shy smile as she approached the wax table. Leafcutter had built it the night before, and after finding an especially delicious batch of tulips near one of the People’s windowsills, Leafcutter managed to turn the flowers’ pollen into a deliciously potent drop of honey.
“For you! The last one to earn her true stripe!” Leafcutter set a wax cup with the tulip honey in front of Sugarbag, who picked it up with a quivering hand.
She held the cup in front of her face and chugged the honey. It sloughed down her throat, its saccharine touch heralding a brief relief from the day’s trauma. She had killed a robber fly with the other bees no less than an hour ago. Killer and Carpenter helped pin it down, and the other bees tired it out, but Leafcutter decided that Sugarbag needed to make her first kill—she needed to "earn a stripe." In truth, Sugarbag did feel calmer once she finally scored a kill. Honey had already racked up three, which was surprising. Sugarbag thought Honey would be gentler like herself, but Honey viewed their attacks like a dance—she dodged and struck with the same enthusiasm she had as she hopped among flowers.
Carpenter pulled Sugarbag close to her, aware of the concern in the little bee’s eyes. “It’s okay to feel nervous about what you did. We’re free, and part of being free means we have to make choices we wouldn’t normally make.”
“A stellar performance,” Killer said, pouring a drink of her own. “Sugarbag, I would gladly partner with you on patrol from now on!”
Sugarbag drank another batch of tulip honey. To her own credit, she warmed up to the fact that she had ended another insect’s life. Those robber flies tried to eat her friends—heck, the flies would try to eat her as well if they wanted. Only Killer or Bumble had a chance against the monsters on their own, but all six of the bees together on patrol? What bug could stand up to such odds?
“Salutations, most humble of bees!” a stranger spoke from the bottom of the fireplace.
Killer and Bumble slammed down their cups and flew down the chimney stack. They scanned the dilapidated wooden room, stingers out, ready to intercept any potential foe.
“Down here, I say! There is no need for violence!”
The two bees were joined by the others, Sugarbag edging her way to the front of the little swarm. Sitting on the bricks of the fireplace below them was the most peculiar bug she had ever seen: a coal-black carapace and six segmented legs, not too different from a bee. But the bug was massive, even bigger than a mantis. Sugarbag estimated the creature to be over six inches long, and two dangerous claws topped the end of an extra pair of arms near its face. But the most morbid of the creature’s design was its tail—a long, black weapon tipped with a sharp stinger.
“This is no scorpion like I’ve seen…” Killer muttered.
The scorpion waved a claw. “Correct, my ever-observant friend! I am Emperor Makamira of the Tall Stalk Grove! I welcome you to the People’s Grafthome, Bendiwood!”
Killer separated from the swarm, lowering herself down to better see the creature, but not close enough to be within reach of its tail. A beam of sunlight reflected off the scorpion’s shiny hide, reflecting a glassy shine. Killer spoke, “There are no Tall Stalk Groves here, Emperor. Perhaps you’ve lost your kingdom?”
“Oh fear not. Fear not!” Makamira chuckled. “All of my kin are Emperors of some sort or another. My former kingdom was robbed of me—or rather, I was robbed of it. You see, the People have a dandy attitude of adopting exotic creatures such as myself, but alas, like many others not birthed from these lands, the People decided I was no longer worth their care. Abandoned, I was! But though I have no more luxuries of my former days, I am… free!”
Honey zipped forward, stopping next to Killer. “We’re the same!” she piped up.
Killer swatted at her sister bee, but Honey flipped out of the way and flew right up to Makamira’s face—a simple twitch of his stinger could impale her before the others could take a breath!
“The same? Do tell!” Makamira said, lowering his tail. “There is no need for impoliteness. Your friends, little bee, are understandably wary of me, but Emperor Makamira seeks only kinship and friendship in these tough times.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been friends with a scorpion before,” Honey said.
“And I’ve never known any bees who gave me such a good conversation!” Makamira said, grinning.
Carpenter flew next to Honey, her stern eyes focused on the new creature. “Makamira, I will be open with you. You’re correct. I am wary of you. And as the leader of our patrol, I don't seek to make any allegiances with someone who I am wary of.”
“Fair enough,” the scorpion said.
“And once more,” Carpenter added. “I don’t know what scorpions from the Tall Stalk Grove consider food, but the scorpions in our locale have no qualms with eating bees. So for the time being…” Carpenter grabbed Honey and pulled her away. “Our contact with you will remain curt and infrequent.”
Makamira bowed before the bees. “I bear no ill tidings to your decision. But I do bear gifts…”
The scorpion skittered down the brick fireplace and disappeared beneath one of the warped, wooden floorboards. Half a minute later, he emerged. Clutched within his claws were the withered, chewed-up corpses of five robber flies.
“I ever-so-enjoy snacking on these creatures. From what I witnessed this morning, you six have a grudge with them?” Makamira said.
“They’re natural predators for bees,” Carpenter said. “Some tried to kill us already.”
Makamira shrugged, then tossed the corpses onto the ash in the fireplace. “Then allow me to offer a treaty of non-aggression by making these creatures a staple of my diet for the next few days.”
He scampered off between the floorboards, the five robber fly corpses lying in the soot. The bees didn’t know whether to keep celebrating Sugarbag’s first kill or to discuss what actions to take regarding the unusually polite creature who slept beneath their new home.
Divvied sanctum border state
Flags at mast in colonnade
Furrowed terrace owned and paid
Cash amassed for profit made
Set a contract
Set a post
Set a fort and army host
Set a congress plied by most
To lord the low
And tax the ghost.
The bees had patrolled the abandoned yard near the shack for hours and hadn’t found the first sign of a robber fly. Carpenter’s blitzkrieg of progressive eradication seemed to work—the deadly bugs would trouble the bees no more in this area. Killer guessed that Makamira’s help was worth it. The Emperor Scorpion had killed five of the robber flies for them already, and for all they knew, he was scurrying among the bushes and tree limbs, ambushing the flies and feasting on them at this very moment.
Having a predator for their predators proved beneficial after all.
With no more robber fly encounters, the bees set off to gather pollen. Several nearby houses for the People in Bendiwood kept flowers and vegetables for their own use, and the People never swatted or sprayed the bees like the ones Honey spoke of when quoting her broodmates' rumors.
The bees never imagined such a variety of pollen: chrysanthemums, beautyberries, and pansies blanketed some of the yards for the People, and set in quaint rows were turnips, collard greens, and green onions. Back at the chimney, Leafcutter set to work with her massive kitchen and waxwork station, turning the pollen varieties into sweet honey that the bees were all-to-eager to sample.
Back at the Hive on the Hill, such an idea would be a fool’s fantasy.
* * *
As Bumble soared from a blossomed pansy to a wild daisy, she halted in her flight. Had the ground moved?
She backed up, her legs coated with pollen clumps. Cautiously, she hovered closer to the dirt-clod ground near the base of an overgrown bush. Surely she didn’t see the ground move! But strange sights and stranger creatures lurked out here beyond the Hive on the Hill…
As Bumble closed in near the base of the bush, a strange shape scampered across the dirt. The ground hadn’t moved, but the creature crawling across it blended in so well that it might as well have been a dirt pile.
“Um, pardon me sir? Miss?” Bumble asked the odd creature. “Are you… well, um, what are you?”
The creature was four inches long with four legs, a head, and a tail. Short fur covered its body, and as Bumble approached the little creature, she saw that its eyes were closed tightly. Its body rose and lowered at a rapid pace, taking quick breaths of air.
If Bumble didn’t know any better (she didn’t), she’d think this creature was hurt.
“I s’pose you don’t go about speakin' or nothin’, but maybe there’s another thing like you nearby?” Bumble thought out loud. “Not bein’ offensive or nothin’, Mister- or Miss What-You-May-Be, but I’d be a bit miffed with meself if I didn’t see ‘bout lettin’ another of the What-You-May-Be’s know where you happen to be at the moment in case, oh, there be an issue I’m not quite privy to right now. ‘Kay?”
The creature didn’t respond.
“Right! I’ll be takin’ that as an affirmation by lack of not tellin’ me that I’m not supposed to act!” Bumble said, then soared up to gain a better view of her surroundings.
For thirty minutes, Bumble’s journey to find the rest of the What-You-May-Be’s kinfolk evolved into nothing more than a series of “Oh, pardon me!” and “Sorry to be botherin’ you kind folk!” as her search proved as fruitless as an apple tree in January. But as Bumble was about to lose all hope of completing her little quest, she heard the unmistakable noise of a creature in peril.
Bumble raced towards the source, which was coming from a pine tree branch. Sitting on the bow of a branch was a regular-looking squirrel, bushy-tailed and fluffy in her Autumn coat. She wiped a paw across her face, then let out a babble of crying.
“Excuse me, Miss,” Bumble said, zipping up to the squirrel.
The animal turned her back to Bumble. “Oh, don’t pester me this day! Any day but this day!”
But Bumble was too stubborn to let a squirrel tell her to stop pestering her. “Well Miss, if you don’t mind me proddin’, which I think you do mind me proddin’, but my proddin’ may be a relief to whatever grief be hexin’ you, so here I prod while you sob: you, Miss Squirrel, seem to be distressed by some kind of terrible event, and seein’ as how I just recently stumbled upon a scraggly What-It-May-Be that seemed in a bit of peril, and you’re in a bit of peril, and maybe… maybe there be a connection of sorts?”
The squirrel stared at Bumble like the bee was a creature of another world.
Bumble cleared her throat, “Ahem, not that I know what larva squirrels look like, but I think I found a lost squirrel that—”
The squirrel on the branch scampered closer to Bumble. “Where is it!?” she shouted, a wild excitement in her eyes. “Where is my little Yannie!”
An accomplished smile spread over Bumble’s face. “Follow me, Miss, and I’ll bring you to a lost little fuzzy-somethin’ that needs its mother!”
* * *
Leafcutter and Killer sat in the kitchen of their chimney. Leafcutter placed four different cups of honey in front of Killer, each one brewed from a different combination of pollen from the previous day’s gathering.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Killer said, eyeballing one of the cups. “I’ve never taken to vegetable-based honey.”
“Never taken to vegetable-based honey!?” Leafcutter’s mandibles almost dropped to the table. She rarely took offense to her brewing, but displeasure of raw ingredients struck her harder than any personal insult. “Vegetable-based honey has been a staple of People-based Hives for… for… well, I don’t know how long! I’m not Carpenter. I can’t know everything—”
“You don’t have to,” Killer said, two sets of arms crossed. “All I’m asking you to know is that I’ve never taken to vegetable-based honey.”
“Vegetables are a constant in People’s own food supplies, and here in Bendiwood, vegetables are everywhere. How do you just… just not like the major supply of honey!”
“I’m more of a flower bee.”
“All bees are flower bees. Everything has a flower!”
“Leafcutter, all I’m saying is that I think that vegetable-based honey loses too much of its flavor in the actual vegetable part of the plant. Regular flowers put it all in the pollen.”
Leafcutter rolled her eyes so far into her head she almost lost them. “Oh, so you’re too good for vegetable-based honey. Is that it?”
“That’s not it—”
“It is too… it. It’s it! Just sitting up there in your upper Hive levels, watching us good, honest worker folk doing what we can with what we’ve got. I suppose you'll want me to just go knock on a nearby Hive and see if the Queen has any royal jelly she can—”
“Squirrel,” Killer muttered.
“—part with because somebody only wants top shelf honey—”
“Carpenter get back!” Killer shouted, pulling Leafcutter from the little wax kitchen.
Gripping the coarse bricks of above them was a squirrel that had climbed down the top of the chimney. She looked at the two bees curiously, and then a familiar voice spoke out.
“I made friends!” Bumble shouted, then flew up from behind the squirrel. “Leafcutter, Killer, I want you two to meet Kibby. She’s one of the Gilly-Garucks!”
“Bumble… what the—” Leafcutter started.
“She’s a squirrel!” Bumble blurted out.
“I can see that she’s a squirrel!”
“There’s like, a hundred of them!” Bumble shouted.
From the chimney opening above, several tiny, furry heads poked over to see the bees and Kibby near the coals at the bottom. Leafcutter and Killer froze in equal parts terror, confusion, and absolute befuddlement.
“They’re our new friends!” Bumble said, then took her place behind the kitchen. “Ooh! Vegetable-based honey. My favorite!”
In eight seconds, she devoured Carpenter’s entire stash.
A Plant Thing
"I found a thing today."
"What kind of thing?"
"Is it a thingy-thing?"
"What kind of thingy-thing?"
"Can I be a thingy-thing?"
"I don't know shut up you're a bee go away I found a thing."
Bees are awkward thingy-things.
Trace the skies with wingy-things.
Laced with yellow ringy-things.
Fuzzy butts with stingy-things.
“Go ahead,” Carpenter told the little squirrel. “Just a bit, though. It takes a while to make this stuff.”
Yannie the baby squirrel poked his nose forward. He and his mother, Kibby, were invited to the windowsill of the abandoned shack so that Yannie could taste some of the bees’ honey. Ever since Bumble found him lost under a bush, the Gilly-Garuck squirrel clan held the bees in their debt. Already Leafcutter had set off with a group of the critters to see how they harvested acorns and stored them for Winter—much the same way bees stored honey. And while the other bees were out collecting pollen, Carpenter decided to let little Yannie see what bees liked to eat.
The squirrel licked the slab of honey Carpenter had spread on the windowsill, then his little black eyes darted open as he nuzzled the rest of the windowsill, trying to lap up any honey he had missed.
“He likes it!” Carpenter said, smiling at the baby.
“He’s a growing boy,” Kibby said, pulling Yannie close to her. “But he’s got to get good and fat before we hide from the snow, isn’t that right, Kibby?”
Kibby didn’t answer. Instead he cured up in his mother’s grip. His curious eyes surveyed the interior of the shack, taking in the fireplace where the bees lived and the various empty, dilapidated rooms. He later fixed his gaze on a hole in the floor.
“Oh, not down there Yannie!” Carpenter said, scratching the squirrel on his nose. “That’s off limits to little squirrels.”
“Is it dangerous?” Kibby asked.
Carpenter shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe. Maybe not. Emperor Makamira of the Tall Stalk Grove lives down there, and we’d rather not disturb him.”
“Who is Emperor Makamira?”
“A large scorpion—the largest I’ve ever seen in my life. Bigger than little Yannie here.”
Kibby pulled her child closer to her. “I don’t like the sound of that. Scorpions don’t get that big—and aren’t you all scared?”
Carpenter shook her head. “Emperor Makamira killed several robber flies. Robber flies love to eat bees. We have more of an uneasy truce, I think. He lives beneath the shack, and we live in the chimney. He goes out and hunts, but he leaves us alone. Or well, he’s left us alone ever since we first met him—”
“Carpenter!” Killer zipped up to the windowsill, her face a sneer of terror. “Kibby, we need you! It’s Honey! She’s in trouble!”
* * *
“Pull harder!” Honey shouted, her voice muffled and strained. “It’s getting tighter!”
Bumble and Sugarbag pulled on both sides of the plant, but not even Bumble could get it to budge. Honey had been the first to find the strange plant down in a boggy section of the Grafthome, and she had told Bumble and Sugarbag that the plant “had the sweetest pollen she had ever smelled in her whole life!” But the sweetest part of the plant were its leaves, each split open into two halves, and when Honey landed on one of the leaves, the other half slapped shut on top, pinning and trapping her.
If Killer hadn’t heard their cries for help, then they would have had no hope of getting Honey free.
Even as Bumble and Sugarbag tried to open the mouth-like plant, the tantalizing aroma of the plant’s pollen played at their noses. That smell was the sweetest, most enticing odor they had ever found in their existence. But Honey’s dire situation kept them from being too enamored by the plant’s tricks. If they could just pull—
“What’s the matter?” Carpenter said, followed shortly by Killer, Yannie, and Kibby.
Sugarbag blurted out through tears, “Please! You have to help her! She’s trapped!”
Kibby placed Yannie on the ground, then scampered up to the plant. Several other mouth-like leaves surrounded it, and a little crown of blooming flowers topped the plant. She stuck her mouth into the base of the leaves and nibbled off the leaf-trap's stem, then leapt from the plant and let the plucked off leaf fall. The bees hovered around her as she gripped the two leaves and pulled them apart with ease. Killer had seen Kibby split an acorn in half the previous day—she knew Kibby would have no problem with a large leaf.
Honey was lying on the inside of one of the leaves. She was stuck to the fleshy inner surface, a look of embarrassment and disappointment on her face. Amazingly, she wasn’t scared. But she knew the other bees would never let her forget this day.
“Hold still, little bee. This might hurt,” Kibby said.
The squirrel slipped a paw under Honey and wriggled her around, slowly detaching her from the sticky surface. Honey grimaced as some patches of hair were plucked from her back, but soon enough Kibby pulled Honey free and tossed the leaf away.
“You’re free!” Sugarbag soared forward and threw her arms around Honey. “I thought that was the end of you!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I thought it was the end of me too… but did you smell that stuff?” Honey waddled to her feet, slightly off balance from the missing hairs. “It was like heaven!”
Carpenter smelled the air, and before she chastised Honey for her reckless behavior, she held herself steady. The plant did smell pleasant… more than pleasant: intoxicating. Never had she encountered a flower, pheromone, or scent that beckoned to her the same was as this strange plant.
“What about the flowers on top?” Carpenter said. “Are they safe?”
“I stuffed my face into them and nothing happened—but they smelled great too!” Honey said, regaining enough mobility to go airborne.
“I’ll check them out,” Killer said, flying up to the petals. “We have Kibby here in case anything too strange happens again.”
Killer crawled around inside the flowers, grabbing at the pollen hidden within. Had the other bees not been there with her, she would have eaten every last bit of the pollen inside. The pollen called to her, like a drug dangling in front of an addict, and Killer had to will herself against investigating the other mouth-like leaves located below the blossom. After clutching enough pollen for Leafcutter to brew a batch of honey, Killer flew out of the flower.
“It’s safe up there. But… that was rough!” Killer said.
“What do you mean?” Carpenter said.
“I can see why Honey wanted to investigate the leaves after rolling around up there. This plant has a lure—a deadly lure. But if we can resist the lure, the rewards may be entirely worth it.”
“Well then let’s get away from the lure and get this reward of yours back to the chimney,” Carpenter commanded. “From now on, none of us return to this strange plant without one of the Gilly-Garucks accompanying us. We can’t risk something like this happening again.”
The bees nodded, and Kibby promised the bees that any of the squirrels from her troupe would be willing to escort the bees.
“Leafcutter will lose her stripes when she gets a taste of this stuff,” Killer mumbled as they returned to the chimney.
What crawls back you cast aside?
What home kept you classified?
Puddles dripped in calloused fleet
Of memories trickled, malice deep
Abandoned tandem vacant street
Slake the love you piked in heap
“I call it the Sweet Surprise!” Leafcutter announced from the kitchen.
The other five bees woke up extra early to witness the concoction Leafcutter had made. Killer brought her the pollen from the deadly plant the previous day, and Leafcutter immediately set forth to distill it. Giving Leafcutter the pollen was like offering a feast to a starving fool.
“Sweet Surprise?” Honey said. “That’s it?”
Leafcutter scoffed. “What do you mean?”
“Sweet Surprise sounds so…”
“Dumb,” Killer said.
“You know what I went through to get this, don’t you?” Honey said. “It should be something cool, like Death’s Whisper.”
“Or the Sting of Ambrosia,” Killer said.
“The Plight of the Bumblebee,” Honey said.
Leafcutter shouted above the others, “It’s called the Sweet Surprise because I made it, and that’s what it’s going to be! None of you would know the artform of distillery if it… if it clasped around you like a carnivorous leaf!”
Honey snatched the cup off the kitchen counter. “Well you’re right. I don’t know the artform of distillery… and it did clasp around me like a carnivorous leaf.” And with her final remark, Honey upended the entire cup into her mouth.
“The whole thing?” Sugarbag pouted. “What about us?”
Honey slammed the cup onto the counter. “I got eaten for it, sooooo I get to eat it! Okay? That’s the law of…” Honey stumbled over, bumping her head on the ground. “That’s… that’s good stuff, Leafcutter.”
“Are you all right?” Carpenter said, picking Honey up.
“It’s the aftertaste,” Honey said, smacking her mandibles. “And the beforetaste. And the midtaste. It’s the whole thing. All the taste… I feel… Oh, I’m so tasted!” Honey’s head drooped and her antennae flopped onto the counter.
“Well that’s new,” Leafcutter said.
“Too much too fast?” Killer suggested. “Is it… potent?”
Leafcutter shrugged. “If you fetch some more, we can find out.”
Bumble nodded, already volunteering for the task. “I’ll be collectin’ it. I’ll be gettin’ one of the Gilly-Garucks to help.”
“Safety first,” Carpenter confirmed.
The bees all scattered for their morning chores. Killer took patrol around the chimney while Leafcutter set to work distilling more pollen. Carpenter and Sugarbag flew off to a flower patch on the northern side of the Grafthome, and Leafcutter offered to keep an eye on Honey until she sobered up.
The seventh bee arrived shortly after.
* * *
Killer swept low along the grass, eyes focused beneath the shack. She hadn’t seen Makamira since his introduction to their swarm, and though she offered the scorpion her trust on the outside, she kept her wits up within. For all she knew, the scuttling monster was plotting his time away beneath their home, waiting to execute some dastardly plan.
And Killer needed a contingency—just in case.
But what could she do? None of the bees could kill him—he was too massive. A Gilly-Garuck could put up a decent fight—two Gilly-Garucks could overwhelm him. But that stinger’s venom? Would the Gilly-Garuck’s risk death in one of their tribes to save some bees?
Bumble had saved one of them…
“I wish I could trust others as easily as Honey…” Killer started, but another black and yellow-striped bug flew up in front of her.
“Hail, fellow broodmate!” the other bee called to her.
Killer halted, her stinger out. She was roughly a foot off the ground, and the shack rested to her left. If she needed to hug a surface for a fight, the ground would work best. This new bee… it had a smell…
“Is the new Hive ready?” the bee said.
Killer leered at the bee. “What do you know about a new Hive? Who are you?”
The bee bowed in the air. “I am Jipp, a former tenant of Queen Bamrella’s Hive on the Hill. May she forever rest in peace with the Ghost Hive Angorath in the Great Elsewhere!”
Rest in peace?
“Wait!” Killer shook the befuddlement from her head. “Bamrella is dead?”
Jipp nodded. “Oh yes! There was a revolt after Juniper Cluster collapsed—she was overthrown by the workers!”
Killer almost fainted out of the air. “That’s impossible!”
“Only for those who can’t resist her pheromones!” Jipp said, soaring above Killer. “But what if the populace of bees were riled up by a recent resistance? What if a rebellious group of bees who set off on their own incited the remaining bees to swarm and depose their tyrannical ruler?”
Killer waved her hands, motioning for Jipp to stop. “You’ll have to come with me. The others need to know!”
* * *
Killer brought Jipp to the chimney Hive where she met Honey and Leafcutter. While there, they exchanged stories of the Hive on the Hill and the bees’ current stay in Bendiwood. Honey sobered up, but once she was stable enough to ask questions, Jipp’s worried looks between Leafcutter and Killer showed that the poor stranger preferred Honey when she was too sloshed to speak.
In time, Bumble returned with more than enough pollen from the deadly plant, so Leafcutter set to work distilling her Sweet Surprise (“And no I’m not changing the name!”). When Carpenter and Sugarbag returned, they nearly fainted at the sight of another bee from the Hive on the Hill.
But Jipp’s pheromones were… different? She smelled like a bee from the Hive on the Hill, but the scent wavered a bit. Calibrating her identity was like tasting a drink that had a drop of peculiar seasoning in it.
“So now there isn’t a Queen anymore, and the Hive on the Hill is just… going on!” Jipp said, sipping her fifth cup of honey.
“But where do the eggs come from?” Carpenter said, trying to find a hole in the story.
“There are no more eggs,” Jipp said.
Carpenter shook her head. “There can’t be no more eggs. Somebody has to lay the eggs.”
“Who lays eggs in this Hive?” Jipp retorted.
“We don’t need eggs!” Honey said. “We’re just six bees living our best lives!”
Jipp fluttered in front of the fireplace, arms out. “As are we! The Hive on the Hill is no longer ruled from a wax crown ruler on the Sugar Throne. Instead of planning a cycle of birth and death, where the newborn become caregivers of caregivers of caregivers—a never-ending ritual—we have chosen to live. Now take what you’re doing with only six bees, then imagine what you could accomplish with ten thousand!”
“Ten thousand bees without a Queen?” Killer sighed, unable to comprehend so many bees living without direction.
Jipp continued her speech, circling around the living room of the shack. “Because of six bees who dared resist Bamrella, thousands more will feel the breeze of freedom. So, may the old Queen be forever blessed in Angorath, a Ghost Hive for ghost bees. Though we too shall join her one day, we will march through those hallowed gates not as children returning to their mothers, but as thousands of independent Queens rushing the bastion of tradition and nepotism. I have been sent, my dear icons, by the new Hive on the Hill to bring our six heroes back. Once you return, you may look upon the greatness inspired by—”
As Jipp reached the peak of her soliloquy, a segmented tail tipped with a stinger bolted forth from a crack in the floorboard. The stinger caught Jipp in the thorax, and her wings fell limp. Emperor Makamira skittered out from the floor’s crack, the once-ostentatious Jipp now impaled on the end of his stinger. Before the others could even scream, the scorpion began pulling Jipp apart with his claws, eating her right in front of them.
“Murderer!” Sugarbag shouted. “Y-y-you’re a monster!”
“She was our sister!” Honey roared, her little stinger out.
“Nonsense!” Makamira said between bites. “This is a wasp.”
The bees fell silent, beset by confusion moreso than fear.
Makamira burped. “You know? A wasp?”
“I’ve heard of wasps,” Carpenter said. “But she carried the pheromones of the Hive on the Hill. Only bees like us carry that scent.”
Makamira chuckled, already finished with eating Jipp. He tossed the parts he didn’t like to the side, where they lumped in a lifeless heap on the wooden floor. “She smells the way she smells because someone helped her smell that way.”
“Who would want a wasp to smell like us?” Honey said.
“Someone who wants to find you. Specifically, someone who wants to hire a third party to find you. Jipp isn’t some bee from your Hive. She’s a killer. Your former Queen remembers you, it seems. I'd reckon she's perfectly alive and still sitting on that fancy throne of hers.” Makamira smiled, then disappeared beneath the floor. “But Emperor Makamira enjoys your company! And Emperor Makamira doesn't parlay with rulers who trespass into his domain.”
The six bees sat in silence for several minutes. None of them could process Makamira’s words quickly enough to break the noiseless atmosphere until Carpenter spoke.
“Leafcutter…” Carpenter said. “We’re going to need a lot of Sweet Surprises.”
Jai, the Withertrick Song
There be People in the world outside the Hive.
Much like us, oh yes.
Some will buzz.
Some will harvest.
Some will sting.
Some will bid a Queen.
But make care when the People near.
For they be tempered
Or they be wild
Or they be ridden flush with love
There be People in the world outside the Hive.
There be People.
And they be here.
“Carpenter, is that you?” A squirrel spoke from a nearby tree.
Carpenter was almost fully laden with pollen, having finished her final chore for the day. The sun overhead was just beginning to set, and Carpenter looked forward to a nice evening with her sisters at the kitchen in the shack’s chimney. Relations with the Gilly-Garucks had been strong for the recent days, so Carpenter always took their need for conversation seriously.
“Yep! It’s me,” Carpenter said. “You’re getting a lot better at picking out who we are!”
The squirrel nodded, but Carpenter felt a hint of hesitation in the squirrel’s voice. It seemed nervous, like it didn’t want to talk.
“Well, go ahead!” Carpenter said.
“It’s the shack where you’re staying…”
Carpenter felt her stomach sink. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing is wrong… maybe.” The squirrel absently scratched the side of its neck. “But you need to be at the shack.”
* * *
Leafcutter hid near the top of the chimney in the shack. An eerie suspicion crept up her spine when she heard the rumbling metal-thing approach. For the past week, the People hadn’t approached the old home where the bees were staying. They stayed in the newer, more furnished Hive on the same property space. But only minutes earlier, Leafcutter had heard a strange metal-thing roll up to the shack.
And now one of the People was walking around inside their home!
He was tall—all People were tall for bees, and his hair looked bone-white in the rays of the sun peering through the window. He wore denim overalls that were older than most children, and the oil-stained cap sitting on his head sported a symbol that Leafcutter couldn’t interpret—she never learned how to read the People’s runes.
“Leafcutter!” Carpenter muttered from above. She was standing at the top of the chimney with one of the Gilly-Garucks nearby.
“Oh thank Angorath you’re here!” Leafcutter whispered. “It’s the People!”
“I know,” Carpenter said. “The Gilly-Garucks say that this is his domain.”
“Well for being his domain, he doesn’t spend a lot of time here!”
The squirrel spoke, “He is Jai the Withertrick Song. He’s lived in this area since the time before my grandmother’s grandmother!”
“Is he dangerous?” Leafcutter asked, flying down to the hearth and peeking up at him. “He just kind of... lumbers around like a great beast.”
“Don’t fly into his face,” the squirrel said. “He’ll swat at you.”
Jai took a few steps towards the fireplace, causing Leafcutter to flutter up to the chimney top with Carpenter and the Gilly-Garuck. The old man peered through his glasses, then fixed his eyes on the wax-built kitchen and mini-Hive that the bees had built.
“No!” Leafcutter shouted, but Jai wouldn’t heed her warnings.
The man reached a calloused hand up the chimney and grasped at the beeswax growth, plucking it from the chimney and letting it drop into the ash fireplace below. He then pressed it with a pen from his pocket until it broke in two. After inspecting it, he decided the strange insect structure wasn’t worth his time any more, then set about exploring the shack.
Leafcutter and Carpenter soared down the chimney and landed near the broken kitchen. Hexes of honey were leaking all over the sooty fireplace, and as they tried to gather the precious honey, the Gilly-Garuck scampered down after them and picked the two pieces up in its mouth.
Jai didn’t notice the bees, but the suddenness of a squirrel landing in his fireplace was enough to startle him. He stumbled backwards, cursing in a language the bees couldn’t know, and he would have thrown his pen at the Gilly-Garuck had it not already darted back up the chimney, gripping the brick walls like its life was at stake.
The bees and the squirrel waited on the roof, allowing Jai to finish his duties. After half an hour, the man left the shack and climbed back into his metal-beast. It rumbled to life with him inside, and he drove away to the People Hive where the others lived.
“Leafcutter,” Carpenter started. “I think this Withertrick Song sort of People is too massive to fit under the shack. So I’ve been thinking…”
“But Emperor Makamira lives under the shack,” Leafcutter argued.
Carpenter nodded. “I know, which means that our little life outside the Hive on the Hill is about to be a lot more complicated.”
Kindly welcome foreign folk
Sit awhile exchange what spoke
How's the husband?
How's the wife?
How's the hand conceal the knife?
How's the foul play wanton strife
That hacks the steadfast clean from life?
Hidden household pilfered bare
Wilt intention steal once shared
Slavered grin now grime ensnared
Befriend the friendless, then beware
The previous night and the current morning were spent in a scramble. Leafcutter took charge, helping the bees place and form beeswax into the correct locations beneath the shack. With their kitchen destroyed, over half of the stockpiled honey had gone to waste. So the bees relocated just beneath the raised boards of the shack's front porch. Maybe Jai wouldn't find them down there.
But on a different note, hopefully they were far enough from Makamira’s territory for him to not feel reproached—not that any of them had asked. The creepy scorpion hadn’t been seen since he popped out of the floor and ate Jipp. But all of the bees agreed that Makamira, though dangerous, had their best interests at heart. He had actively saved them from being tricked into going back to the Hive on the Hill.
That meant he was an ally, right?
* * *
The bees spent the afternoon gathering honey. The Gilly-Garucks showed the bees a beautiful garden in one of the People’s backyards, so the bees had plenty of work to keep them busy. They rolled around in the pollen and dropped it back off at the new Hive so many times that even Honey fell silent. Carpenter guessed that with all bees working overtime to harvest pollen, their honey stores would return to normal, especially with Leafcutter having a fully reconstructed kitchen.
By the time the sun set, the bees nearly collapsed back at the Hive from lack of rest. Bumble plopped into a heap under one of the stairs, and Killer downed more than eight cups of honey before crawling into a hexroom to rest her wings. Honey and Sugarbag cuddled together and massaged each other’s wings, leaving only Leafcutter and Carpenter awake.
“And still no sign of His Majesty?” Carpenter said, referring to Makamira.
“Nope. I don’t smell him. I don’t hear him. It’s like he disappears,” Leafcutter said, setting a sluice to help divide the honey in her distillery. “Which he probably does.”
“Don't scorpions dig?” Carpenter wondered. “I want to say they do. I think they’re burrowers.”
“So when Makamira says he is living beneath the house, he is literally beneath the house.”
Carpenter shrugged. “Sounds like it. He could be beneath us as we… speak…”
Carpenter and Leafcutter both glanced at the dirt below them. The stairs had no “floor” for the bees. Their kitchen and hexrooms were built on a vertical surface, but with the ground only a foot beneath their little Hive, both bees could imagine the pitch-black monster rumbling out of the ground and snatching them one-by-one with his deadly tail.
“I need some fresh air,” Carpenter muttered.
“That sounds like a great idea,” Leafcutter agreed.
The bees fluttered into the cool night air. A breeze chilled them, but not enough to send them underneath the stairs. Winter would arrive any day so it seemed, but even with all the terrors and setbacks they had encountered at Bendiwood, their troubled freedom outweighed any “safety” that Bamrella’s Hive on the Hill promised them.
Carpenter and Leafcutter turned to see a family of moths gliding along the night air. Their faces were calm and wispy, as worriless as any larvae who had no sense of the world’s ills.
Carpenter and Leafcutter curtsied towards the moths. “Greetings! Fine night?”
One of the moths loop-de-looped while the others laughed. “The finest of nights! This is the night of Shaur Shan!”
“Oh, Shaur Shan!” Leafcutter smiled, then glanced at Carpenter. “Do you know what that is?” she whispered.
“Never heard of it,” Carpenter grumbled back, then turned to the moths. “What is Shaur Shan, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Shaur Shan is the ancient moon angel who appears only at night!” the moth said. “Never has Shaur Shan visited this little neighborhood in the Grafthome. She is the shepherd to the Great Elsewhere, a beacon that blinds the troubles from our lives! And tonight we will pray at her temple!”
The moths bid their farewells and left the bees. But Carpenter and Leafcutter were too intrigued to let the moths’ peculiar behavior go unanswered, so they tagged along behind the oddball bugs and followed them on their trek.
As they flitted through the sky, other moths and a couple of beetles joined on the strange journey to Shaur Shan. Carpenter and Leafcutter ached to tell each other how odd the whole parade seemed, but they kept mum so as not to disturb any sanctity the bugs felt regarding Shaur Shan.
As the bugs left the domain of the shack, they entered the territory of Jai the Withertrick Song. His Hive bordered the same property that the shack was on, and judging by Jai’s poking around inside the shack on the previous day, Carpenter assumed he owned both the shack and his Hive.
They rounded the corner, and Carpenter threw a hand out to push Leafcutter behind the house. She caught a glimpse—a terror!
Shaur Shan was no angel, but a destructive nightmare!
“What’s going on?” Leafcutter said. “I want to see!”
Carpenter kept a hand over her eyes and leapt behind the house with Leafcutter. “They’re dead!”
“Dead! They’re dead, Leafcutter! Shaur Shan isn’t an angel—it’s a zapper!”
Leafcutter shook her head. “I don’t know what that is…”
“The People make zappers to kill bugs—even bees! They give off a light that’s impossible to resist, and it lures you in. Then when you get too close, the zapper bolts you like a lightning strike and you explode into a thousand pieces!”
“But the moths—”
As if answering Leafcutter, several loud POPS followed by flashes of blue echoed from the other side of the house.
“There aren’t anymore moths,” Carpenter said. “Now come. We dare not venture on this side of Jai’s Hive at night—that’s when he activates the zapper. That’s when he tricks the other bugs into thinking Shaur Shan is going to save them.
* * *
Leafcutter curled up in her hexroom. Carpenter had already gone to sleep, and as Leafcutter tried to shake the noise out of her head—the POPS—she made a mental tick of all the other terrors that existed out here in the Hive on the Hill.
All those bugs—dead.
She gave once last look towards the dirt beneath them. If Makamira burst out of the ground and slew them all in that instant…
There were worse ways to go, she supposed.
Behold the sham of reverie,
A dream, a dance, a blunder,
Omit the damned calamity,
A wish, a storm, asunder.
Wreck the ill-lain strands of peace,
Trash the treatise fair,
Wake from hopes the world won't crumble,
Bash the gentle
Take your share
Admit the hate that stares you down,
A foe, a fiend, a brigand,
Commit the dirge-song blare the sound,
A threat, a duel, a villain.
Sugarbag set her wax basket onto the grass and slipped onto a dew-speckled leaf. The cool water quenched her appetite, and she wiped the dew over her hairs and legs to clean them from the morning’s work. She gave her wings a flutter to sling off the remaining dampness, then plucked her basket over her shoulder and set off to find more flowers.
Though the other bees kept an air of gloom about themselves, Sugarbag preferred the Hive beneath the steps over the Hive within the chimney. The chimney had a dusty, black atmosphere that always caked Sugarbag’s wings, but the stairs smelled of earth and cool Autumn breezes. Even with all the work she had done yesterday, Sugarbag felt as peppy as ever once she woke up for work.
Carpenter and Leafcutter, however, looked as though they’d seen ghosts.
Speaking of ghosts…
“Oh, Killer, is that you?” Sugarbag asked as a faint black and yellow shape flitted past her. Only Killer could fly so fast.
“A killer?” a voice answered back. “Perhaps…”
A wasp slammed into Sugarbag, knocking her wax basket from her hands. It fell into the grass below and spilled out its pollen. But as Sugarbag saw the basket tumble away, the wasp threw an arm over her mouth and held her wings still. It kept them both aloft with its own wings.
“It’s time to talk,” the wasp said.
* * *
Bumble smelled the pheromones the moment she finished filling up three wax baskets with pollen. The morning had proceeded as normal, but as she took a deep breath from all the hard work she had done, she smelled an unmistakable flare of distress.
One of her sisters was in trouble!
She tucked the baskets under a leaf and rocketed through the air, following the pheromone trail while letting out her own signal of distress. Hopefully the other bees were close enough…
* * *
“Where is she?” the lead wasp prodded.
Sugarbag sat in a tree, her wings held back by another wasp. A third one kept a stinger aimed at her head.
“Where is Jipp, our sister?” the wasp asked again.
Sugarbag blurted out the truth, “She’s dead!”
The third wasp pressed her stinger into Sugarbag’s forehead—the smallest of twitches would end Sugarbag’s life, and the poor bee braced herself for a shorter life than she already expected.
“Dead?” the main bee spat the words out. “How did she die?”
“There’s a scorpion! Emperor Makamira!” Sugarbag whimpered. “He’s… he’s living beneath the shack on Jai’s property. He killed and ate her a few days ago. I saw it!”
“You saw it?” the lead wasp pressed on. “What was Jipp doing with you?”
“I don’t know!” Sugarbag said. “I don’t know why—”
Before Sugarbag could finish, the second bee with her stinger pressed to Sugarbag’s head slammed into the tree trunk as Bumble plowed into her. Bumble then drew her stinger, but the other wasps did the same, and the one holding Sugarbag pressed her stinger into Sugarbag’s back.
“Don’t make any sudden moves!” the wasp holding Sugarbag said. “Or we’ll end your sweet little sister.”
The lead wasp flanked Bumble. “Our own sister, Jipp, came this way. She hasn’t returned—and from what we’ve heard, she was last seen with a group of bees.”
“You hear right. We be those bees,” Bumble grunted, scraping her stinger across the tree branch. “Your sis went makin’ a deal with a nasty ol’ Queen from far off. And now your sister is dead.”
The lead wasp tensed up. “You speak of Queen Bamrella?”
“Just Bamrella,” Bumble snarked. “Ain’t no Queens of such around these parts.”
“So she took the deal?” the lead wasp said.
Bumble’s antennae twitched. “What deal?”
The lead wasp folded her arms. “Queen Bamrella wanted us to seek out a little swarm that abandoned her Hive—a group of rebels. Traitors! Said they tried to usurp her rule, even going as far as destroying a chunk of her Hive and killing thousands of their own sisters…”
Bumble gulped. Only days ago had she stopped feeling guilty about her actions back at the Hive on the Hill, but now that Bamrella was spreading falsehhoods about the actions that led to the Hive on the Hill’s demise, the guilt came flooding back to her.
“We didn’t murder the Hive!” Bumble shouted. “We got tricked!”
The lead wasp tilted her head. “Tricked? How so?”
“Bamrella ordered me to go destroyin’ Juniper Cluster, which caused part of the Hive to go down. She gave the order. She made the decision.”
“And you followed it,” the lead wasp said. “Did you know that your actions would kill so many?”
Bumble tried to respond, but she couldn’t find the words.
The lead wasp found her stride, “But you followed orders, didn’t you? So obedient! So what if thousands were about to die by your actions. You were just a hand acting on behalf of a brain. With that being said, I could go ahead and kill this little sister of yours…”
“Let her go!” Bumble shouted.
“… And you wouldn’t hold any ill will against me! After all, I am also just following my orders. You and I are the same. We're just little hands doing little work.”
Sugarbag shouted, “Jipp lost!”
The lead wasp turned to her. “So she speaks?”
“Jipp made a deal with Bamrella, and she lost,” Sugarbag said. “She covered herself in bee pheromones from Bamrella, then pretended to be from our Hive. She lied to us, and Makamira saw through it, so he ate her. That’s what happened. She tried to get us killed, and then she died. If that’s too hard for you to comprehend, then go ahead and kill me now. Jipp gambled, and Jipp lost, and right now you three are walking the same path she did…”
The wasp holding Sugarbag loosened up on her, and the lead wasp grimaced. They stood in silence for a bit, everyone wondering who would make the next move.
The wasp who Bumble tackled pushed herself to her feet, then shook the dizziness from her head. “Face it. Jipp got herself killed. And now she’s about to get us killed too.”
“You’re afraid of this bee?” the lead wasp pointed at Bumble.
“No, but the little one is right,” the dazed wasp said, rubbing her head. “Jipp killed herself. Some corpses are best left buried.”
* * *
The wasps and bees palavered more. They spoke of treaties, enmities, and law. There would be no alliance of any sorts between the bees and the wasps—but they would go their own ways for now. Each side would air their concerns to their leaders: the wasps to their Queen, and Sugarbag and Bumble to Carpenter. The conflict couldn’t be decided by a handful of scrappers meeting in a tree.
This was a problem for leaders to discuss.
So the bees and wasps scattered—Sugarbag and Bumble went back to gathering pollen, and the three wasps returned to whatever Hive they represented. The decision could have been better, but it could have been much worse.
Either way, Makamira let out a sigh of disappointment. He had spent so much time climbing the tree and steadying himself so that he could drop from an overhead branch and snatch two of the wasps in his claws while impaling the third.
“I suppose even grubworms are a meal fit for an Emperor nowadays,” he muttered to himself and skittered down the tree in search of a different meal.
Familiar & Intruder
Where do tempers flare by sect?
“Not with me. Not with me.”
Where do members share respect?
“Not with me. Not with me.”
Huddle now those disregarded teams who spare no stake,
Rake the ashen piles unbounded screams to flare no take,
Strike the fort-wall, test the branded,
Bite the bone-maw, nest the stranded,
Ply the wicked outbound outlaw glare to ravens cawing,
Roost the rot-born birdbeast all-aware to brawlers mauling,
Where go battered bastard sprees?
“Not with me. Not with me.”
Where go suffering refugees?
“Not with me. Not with me.”
The wasps came that morning.
They arrived low with a ground fog, slipping through the damp mists like a ghost armada. Allowing any such slight to go unpunished was a sin to them, and though they knew the scorpion slew their sister, the wasps held the bees guilty by association. The bees lived within the scorpion’s domain, which made them part of the crime.
Justifying self defense against the wasps would be a fool’s banter. Jipp tried to have the bees killed, and any natural law would consider the bees well within their right to ensure Jipp’s demise, but wasps made their own law.
By orders of the wasps' Queen, the bees would die first. If the wasps arrived early enough, then they would catch the bees sleeping and unaware. Once the bees were dead, the scorpion would be the next to die. The wasps had already made peace with their lives—Emperor Makamira would slay several of them, but a beastly foe such as he was worth the sacrifice. Rumor pervaded their Hive that Makamira was a foreigner from far away, and that his mere presence spat in nature’s face.
Such an anomaly deserved to die.
The wasps curved around Jai’s Hive, swirling low under the bushes. The bees were only minutes away, and already the wasps’ pheromones signaled to each other—their excitement took on a life of its own, guiding them like an intangible master to their foe. The energy pulsed within them, revving them to full throttle, filling their…
The wasps’ rhythm shuddered, and a patch of them broke formation. The fleetwide consciousness crumbled away, and one-by-one the wasps slipped out like a cluster of debris being pulled into a whirlpool. A new objective infiltrated the swarm, eclipsing their need to kill.
They had to feed!
Sweet, aromatic, sticky, crispy vapors whirled into the swarm and pulled them away in a tidal force, drawing them around Jai’s Hive towards the angel—the god—the reckoning!
The glowing embassy that is Shaur Shan sported a partner deity in its pantheon, a device hanging beside it that didn’t glow like the full moon, but instead radiated scents that no wasp could deny. The swarm encircled it; the swarm worshipped it; the swarm danced around it before diving headfirst to gorge on the ambrosia within.
All of them piled inside, crawling over each other and pushing their sisters aside to get a taste at the monolithic feast. Jai’s Hive was Mount Olympus that morning, sporting gods upon gods for all creatures of Bendiwood, and once the wasps had their fill, they spread their wings and fluttered—
They tried to back out of Shaur Shan’s sister god, but there was no room to move. No wasp could gain traction in the air—no pheromones could guide them from their trap…
Like the moths and the beetles, Shaur Shan had lain a trap for the wasps as well, teasing them into a cage with euphoric scents and then refusing to let them escape! They would starve, slaves to the gods built by the titan People!
The sun rose, shining a beam across Jai’s yard.
By the end of the day, the wasps stopped moving. The Great Elsewhere beckoned all of them—and the People stood victorious over all.
This Hiveless homestead,
To flee with need,
To write the future,
To plant our seed,
“It’s time to fly again,
The work proceeded as normal. The bees collected pollen and brought it to Leafcutter. Leafcutter distilled the pollen into honey. The bees drank the honey. And so forth. And so forth.
And so forth…
Like a vacation lasting longer than it should, the newfound freedoms for the bees began to wane in splendor. Days spent without a Queen to dictate their deeds drifted into normalcy, and their time away from the Hive on the Hill grew stale. Returning to the former Hive was out of everyone’s mind—nobody missed Queen Bamrella, the Bidder of Tomorrow. Her underhanded schemes served only her ego, and no bee dared retread the grounds where thousands of her sisters died.
The old life was buried. But what would grow in its place?
* * *
Honey hummed no more, but rather hopped methodically from flower to flower, filling her basket and adjusting her bonnet as necessary. What little dancing that existed in her life couldn’t relieve her from the boredom. She held no disregards for Carpenter, but this new independence lacked the spark that she envisioned when daydreaming of a life without a Queen.
They could never run out of food—even when most of their stash was destroyed by Jai, they had rebuilt their stores within a day. Fending for themselves reduced their responsibility, but to do the same task over and over? Where was the joy?
Where was the ballroom that Honey longed for?
* * *
Bumble searched for the Gilly-Garucks, but they eluded her. She never knew them to actively avoid her presence, but over the last few days, Bumble noticed their numbers decrease. None of them spoke of deaths or disappearance—but when she did see them, most of the squirrels spent their time hauling in nuts and seeds much like a bee. Bumble deduced their actions: they were hibernating.
But they didn’t have to kill thousands of their siblings to do so, did they?
All around Bumble, the once-lively People village was shutting down. The grass lost its green hue, the sun lingered less by each day, and the furry companions Bumble grew to accept as family no longer skittered around the land.
It was an awful lonely day…
* * *
Sugarbag stayed in the Hive that day. She couldn’t pull herself from her hexroom. Lethargy seeped too far into her head to accomplish anything. Since the encounter with the wasps, Bendiwood appeared like less of a sanctuary and more of a grim battleground.
Though she missed the security of the Hive on the Hill, service under a domineering monarch didn’t outweigh the risks of being free. But the paradise she desired now lied beyond her grasp, and by staying in Bendiwood, she would never fulfill that happy self-promise.
She had collected her pollen.
She had made her honey.
But she had no more drive to enjoy the benefits of these labors. Repetition bred repetition, and her cyclical life felt less like a circle and more like a spiral. How much of the same-old-same-old would she accomplish before funneling down to her last days?
* * *
“So how do you do it?” Leafcutter asked the Emperor.
“Variety breeds curiosity. And curiosity breeds a sharp mind,” Makamira answered.
The two bugs rested beneath the shack. Leafcutter had finally found Emperor Makamira’s burrow, and when she finished making the previous day’s honey, she decided to seek out the massive arachnid and have a discussion with him that didn’t involve tearing wasps apart. Both he and she were strangers in a foreign world, but Makamira’s place in the natural order was leagues away from Leafcutter’s.
“You six are too busy,” Makamira explained. “Not physically—busy days are a staple for bees. I’d rather say you six are too business. You’re not supposed to slake oppression and trade it for the same damn thing you’d be doing if you were still under the rule of this Bamrella tyrant.”
“But we’re free to make our own decisions now,” Leafcutter said.
Makamira rolled all eight of his eyes and placed a claw to his forehead. “That’s where you’re wrong with life. Yes, you are free. So be free! By all means of the natural order, I should have eaten you days ago.”
“But I didn’t. Because I am free to make my own decisions now.” He smiled. “Your company and demeanor brings so much more to my life than six little meals would. In this world, no bug stands against me. No spider, no wasp, no mantid—none of them. I don’t live my life from meal to meal or bug to bug. I live as I choose.” He reached up and tapped Leafcutter on the head. “You should live as you choose. Even if that means choosing somewhere else.”
* * *
Killer willed herself away from Shaur Shan’s territory. She found traces of a wasp pheromone pathing along Jai’s territory—but when the wasp’s trail altered to something sweeter and (deadlier?) more appealing, she remembered the near-fatal encounter with the monster plant from days ago.
Jai had lain a trick for the wasps…
She retreated back to their Hive. Defeating living terrors was her strongpoint, but even with her natural enemies at bay, Killer doubted her caliber against the upcoming terrors that could be waiting for them.
* * *
“We’re going,” Carpenter told the bees that night. “Not that Bendiwood isn’t a nourishing community—but I want to do more than just get by.”
The other bees agreed.
“Freedom doesn’t have to stop at a monarch. We need to be free of… ourselves! This routine is just a routine. Almost half of our lives have gone by. And for what? Collecting pollen and making honey? As any normal bees do? We have an opportunity that no other bee has ever had…”
“Let’s do it,” Sugarbag said. “Let’s go.”
Leafcutter pulled the honey stores and set them all out on the kitchen—even the pure honey from the carnivore plant. “Let’s drink up tonight. All of it. We can’t bring it with us—so we indulge.”
“We indulge!” Killer agreed.
The bees broke their mechanical method that night. The endless days of harvesting and reaping would conclude on the morning. Like the displaced scorpion below them, the girls would no longer act as bees, but rather act as individuals.
No more chores. No more work. No more law.
No more order in the natural order.
“Is there more to the world.”
“Yes oh yes.”
“Are there flowers to be found?”
“Will we flit with the breeze?”
“Yes oh yes.”
“Can we cuddle with the ground”
No more clanker clangs skidding around the ruins anymore—no oh no oh no! A decade spent soaring above the mire and smog, and for what? Little more dead-kin to chomp up. No tossed out lives for the taking. Oh, how much better would the world be if Steel-Rue sprung back to life?
The old buzzard’s mind was as sharp as a rotten watermelon, and his withered skin clung to his corpse-like body the same way a funeral shroud draped over a cemetery tenant. Kaingo, they called him—the People. Ah, how the People used to swarm over Steel-Rue! It’s rusted smokestacks and concrete-cracked walls once boomed with industry. Saws eviscerated tree trunks, and diesel-stoked monsters dragged piles of wood in and out each day. It was a metal beast that never slept.
Kaingo loved watching the People work at that beast!
But now what? No clanker clangs. No skidding. Kaingo’s food supply dwindled—a lack of People meant a lack of dead animals. The diesel-stoked monsters annihilated animals daily, and Kaingo always lurked above, ready to swoop down and slop up the remains! They fed him well, those People. As a lone buzzard hopping about the world, Kaingo never knew the depth his desire could sink when the People were feeding Steel-Rue.
His stomach gurgled, crying out for a hot, corpulent, hazy chunk of splattered carcass. Garbage worlds needed garbage workers, and Kaingo had been the unemployed lapper of discarded refuse for too long. His hyper-guided mind sought a concept that he could never grasp, and in his nightmare fervor, he let his desires wander outside their confinement.
* * *
Carpenter lead her sisters out of Bendiwood. They had feasted the previous night, which boosted their fortitude for today's flight. They flew faster than they had ever flown before, even when they had fled the Hive on the Hill. Every bee offered contributions to the flight. Bumble and Leafcutter toted extra honey so that they could resupply midair, and Honey and Sugarbag kept the bees entertained with stories, songs, and old anecdotes from the past. Killer stayed in the rear, allowing Carpenter to go forth with the vanguard.
By late afternoon, the bees rested in a dilapidated steel mill that stayed hidden in the backwoods of the Grafthome district. The old mill had deteriorated from its years of derelict weathering, and the bones of old work trucks and machines lay coated with rust.
It was time to refresh.
Bumble and Leafcutter handed out the last of their honey stores as the bees took refuge on top of a smokestack, and Honey marveled at their surroundings.
“This might be the biggest Hive I’ve ever seen!” Honey said between slurps.
Carpenter cast an eerie eye over the buildings. “I think this is the Steel-Rue Ruin. Some of the Gilly-Garuck’s spoke of a massive People Hive where they would bring entire trees—not just pollen—to be harvested into food and wood-wax. It looks so…”
“Dead,” Killer said. “This is a dead Hive.”
“Why would they abandon such a place?” Sugarbag asked, her wide eyes scanning the area. “It has so much—they left so much behind.”
“Maybe their Queen was slain,” Carpenter said. “Or maybe this is only a portion of what used to be a massive Hive, and their Queen decided to destroy some of it for hibernation.”
“Do the People hibernate?” Bumble asked.
Carpenter shrugged. “Perhaps. The People don’t sleep in the Winter like the Gilly-Garucks, but from what the squirrels told me, the People grow a removable coat that covers their whole body at times. Peculiar creatures, but the People didn’t rule these lands by accident.”
Killer tensed, then held up a hand. “I hear something…”
The bees stopped moving and drinking. Killer focused her antennae, picking up windshifts. She sniffed the air, then turned her head. The other bees trusted her enough to not interrupt. Killer had proven before that her hunter’s senses rarely steered them wrongly—
“Split up NOW!” she shouted, then darted out of the smokestack.
The other bees zipped out as well, and just as Sugarbag cleared from the smokestack, a massive buzzard monster crashed into the metal outpost. The bird screeched in pain and hatred, its mottled wings flinging in a panic. Black feathers scattered in a cloud, and the great bird dragged its leathered head from the old smokestack, its eyes insane with hate.
The bees scattered from the Steel-Rue Ruin, shouts of rabid agony echoing after them. As they fled through the nearby woods, the buzzard mounted the smokestack and shrieked its agony. The old, dying creature would soon die along with its steel tomb.
Yes, he would die.
And he would die alone.
The Deep Barrow
Dare we bade the whisper stop?
Dare we halt the step?
Dare we survey ‘round the bend
And dry the eyes once wept?
Time for travel teeters empty.
Time for tidings slow.
Time for tuckered tender ladies
Stop to watch the show.
By night they traveled, and by day they traveled even more. The Steel-Rue Ruin and its hellish vulture caretaker were only a vague memory now—just another brooding nightmare in the bees’ quests since their flight from Bamrella and the Hive on the Hill. But Bendiwood and the Steel-Rue Ruin wouldn’t be the only People-built landmarks for the bees to find.
Ahead of them, a clearing in the forest gave way to another derelict People workplace. But unlike the Steel-Rue Ruin with its rusty and jagged structures, this place appeared fully reclaimed by nature itself. What once was a trailer office was now torn and thrown to the wastes, with dirt and grass and vines corroding it to its base elements. A wooden cabin now lay torn apart, decades of rain, heat, and snow finally winning over.
As mighty as the People pretended to be, time and nature would always win in the end.
A paint-ripped metal sign half-stuck in the dirt advertised the territory as being a former geyser that had now dried up, but the bees only found a crevice in the ground where the geyser once stood.
“There’s a sore in the dirt,” Honey said, hovering above the crevice. “I wonder what did it…”
Before the other bees could tell her to stop, Honey buzzed into the crevice and disappeared beneath the ground.
“What’s she doing?” Leafcutter said, flailing her arms. “She doesn’t know where that goes!”
But as the others began to argue, Bumble zoomed towards the crevice and disappeared as well. The rocky walls narrowed, and a web-tangle of roots and grass protruded from either side of Bumble as the sunlight faded to a little sliver above. Down, down, down Bumble flew, following Honey’s pheromone trail.
She emerged in a mighty cavern, her fluttering wings echoing off the walls. Honey hovered in the center of the cavern, admiring the openness with eyes wide in wonder.
“It’s so big…” Honey said, peering around. “And protected!”
“How so?” Bumble said, keeping Honey close.
“Such a small entrance. Anything too big wouldn’t fit, and if something doesn’t have wings, it’s going to fall and go kaput right here at the bottom,” Honey said, then fluttered closer to the ground.
The bottom of the cavern had a thin pool of water, no more than a couple of inches deep. A porous segment of rock allowed a little stream of groundwater to slip into the cavern. Decades ago, this open reservoir would be filled with geyser water, but even natural wonders feel the effects of time, and much like the reclaimed human constructs, even the mighty geyser lost its fuel.
A clump of green fungus and little flowers sprouted from a patch of dirt that rested in the center of the pool—at least Honey assumed the dirt was actual dirt. It carried a funny smell, and little patches of the dirt surrounded the floor, covering almost all of it.
But something about the dirt's smell…
“Honey,” Bumble said, nudging her. “I don’t think we’re bein’ quite alone down here. The ceilin’s alive…”
Honey glanced up and nearly panicked. The ceiling was moving! The hundreds of rocky outcroppings that dotted the ceiling pulsed every second. If Honey didn’t know any better, she’d expect the top of the cavern to descend on her and catch her up in a wave—
“Honey, Bumble!” Carpenter shouted, buzzing down to them with the other bees not far behind. “What kind of place is this?”
Bumble and Honey simply pointed at the ceiling.
Carpenter followed their fingers, then let out a half-hearted sigh. “Oh, bats. Neat!” She turned back to the two bees. “You two shouldn’t fly off like that without letting us know!”
“But the ceiling!” Honey said.
“I know, I know, I know,” Carpenter handwaved Honey’s concern. “They’re just bats. Think of them like squirrels with wings that eat fruit and mosquitoes.”
“But there are so many of them!” Honey said.
“Well, yeah, they got their own little Hive like bees do,” Carpenter said, pulling Honey closer. “Bats are harmless. Are you a mosquito?”
“Are you a piece of fruit?”
Carpenter slapped Honey on the back. “Then you’ve got nothing to worry about!”
The other five bees stared at the ceiling in wonder at their furry not-quite-bees-but-really-kind-of-similar friends-to-be. Clearly Carpenter had been the only one that knew what bats were.
“Girls, listen,” Carpenter said. “The bats go out at night to eat, then they come back in here when the sun is up. They poop all over the place, which is why the ‘dirt’ smells so bad, and it looks like some little flowers and plants are growing right here where the water and the sunlight beams meet up. It’s perfect!”
“Perfect?” Leafcutter said. “What do you mean by perfect?”
“These bats will make great neighbors!” Carpenter said. “Surely they’ll know all about this area, and this cavern is sure to have tunnels and other little crevices for us to live. We’ll be safe!”
“Wait, neighbors?” Sugarbag said.
“You mean…” Killer muttered.
Carpenter put her hands on her striped hips and surveyed the domain. This happenstance upon the cavern would suit the bees just fine! It offered protection, seclusion, hundreds of neighbors, and plenty of food.
“Yep,” Carpenter said. “I think we’ve found our retirement home in this Deep Barrow!”
The Davnir Symphony
Peel the silvered veiling edict
Dredge the hidden mire
Deep beneath the dirt-cake derelict
Cup the freezing fire
Stand aguard the bastion open
Sort the juxtaposed
Toss the clamshell casket broken
Shield the pearl exposed
Peek within the world-less marvel ostentatious bare,
Bind the spear you wield to service lost in gracious flair
“Only we, the blind and broad, venture such depths.”
“Six little explorers they are, doomed to die—but destined to fly.”
“Fly… as we do?”
“As we do.”
“Stay, they will?”
“Stay, they must…”
* * *
The bees slept throughout the day and night, recuperating the energy spent fleeing their Hive at Bendiwood the Grafthome. Had they slept for so long at the Hive on the Hill, Bamrella’s agents would have punished them to the utmost degree. But at their midlife, the bees didn’t care for a few more hours lost to sleep.
They earned their sleep.
They earned days upon days of slumber for the trials they had been through.
But in the rising sun, oblivious to the bees except for a sliver of light, the cloud of bats living in the cavern returned from their night feast. Killer stirred from her sleep, ever alert, and crawled from beneath the rock on the cavern floor that the bees slept beneath. She stared in stupid wonder at the bat swarm pouring into the cavern. The swarm rumbled along the cavern walls, swirling like the air itself was a tidal wave crashing around a spherical beach. The swarm looped, the bats screeching in harmony as they settled down for their morning rest.
“Stir, she does!” several bats from the swarm spoke at once, shocking Killer to the point she could barely move.
“Yes, the black and yellow bugs take the skies by day!” a cavalcade of other bats answered back.
Their voices bounced off of the walls, filling Killer’s head in a soothing, melodic tone. These bats surprised her in their similarities to bees—their ability to work as a cohesive unit, synchronized to the point that they could speak the same thoughts at the same time, yet individual enough that they could communicate with each other.
Killer had no idea how to sort out this discovery.
“Who are you?” she called out. “Are you… one thing?”
The bats chuckled together, then changed course and fluttered to the ceiling to take roost.
“We are many and one!” they answered. “As the Symphony sings, so do the instruments within!”
Killer shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“We are the ghosts of the great geyser, Davnir! We are the form-fitting swarm that rules where the roiling water once held footing! Davnir’s Symphony feeds on the nightlife, then returns to bless the tomb where Davnir once flowed.”
Killer turned to see the little stream at the bottom of the cavern. Green plant life and algae bloomed where the sunbeams would poke through during the sun’s daily trek. Was the stream Davnir? She had never heard of a geyser before.
“Davnir?” Killer said. “Who was Davnir?”
The swarm of bats rolled in unison and peaked at a crescendo, “The great Davnir seeded these lands with its water, and then the People arrived. The People, ever vigilant, set their posts and shepherded their kin in droves to pay tribute to Davnir, but as with all blessings in nature, Davnir soon died off, and the People left the temple. As such, we arrived, and thus Davnir’s corpse-tomb has kept us safe for years upon years.”
“Nobody dared venture down here, little bee,” another segment of Davnir’s Symphony spoke. “Until you.”
“Davnir approves!” another patch of bats said.
“And as such, so do we,” they spoke in unison.
Killer’s little heart was beating faster than ever. “You approve? How so?” She unsheathed her stinger and hovered in the single beam of morning sunlight. “The only approval I need is that of myself or my sisters!” she shouted to the mass.
The bats recoiled in astonishment, whispers showering out of them like misty rain. After much discussion, they spoke, “She’s a strong bee—unafraid! As she should be. She is like Davnir himself with her ire and ferocity!”
“That’s right I am!” Killer said, not sure what she meant. “And don’t you forget it!”
* * *
The other bees woke to find Killer pondering on one of the flowers. She was eating a handful of pollen. Her face was contorted in deep thought.
“Rough night?” Honey asked, flying up to her sister and burying her face in one of the flowers. The pollen tasted delicious. “You can fix a rough night with a joyous morning, you know?”
“It’s… strange,” Killer said, looking at the ceiling. “These bats…”
“Yeah, they’re a strange bunch all right,” Sugarbag said, joining Honey. “Carpenter said they eat at night and sleep in the day.”
“Did Carpenter tell you that they exist as a single mind?” Killer said, eyes drifting towards Carpenter. “Like a Hive where the Queen lived within each bee?”
Carpenter scrunched up her face. “I’ve never heard such a thing.”
“They’re asleep now,” Killer said. “But when they leave tonight to feed, or when they come back tomorrow morning to sleep—it’s like the world itself came to life and sang to me. This Davnir Symphony, as they call themselves, is some kind of ghost in this reliquary cavern.”
The other bees fell silent, all of their eyes focused on the bat-coated ceiling.
Killer chuckled, “But we’re 'approved' or something, so all is well!” She then floated into the air, aiming for the crevice. “I’m going outside for some fresh air. You girls have fun down there!"
We are what must lay the course
We the gambled story
We are what protect the source
We the migratory
Once unguided focused fine
A swarm in Autumn
Bane the cages weld with grime
Hone the honeyed
The Davnir Symphony had left for the night, giving the cavern an eerie draft of silence. The bees normally slept at this time, but with the protection offered by the cavern and the patch of flowers holding all the pollen they would ever need, they rarely needed sleep.
They rarely needed anything at all.
Honey fluttered along the ceiling, admiring the bare rockface while the bats were absent. She expected it to be covered in grime and refuse, but then she laughed her silliness away when she realized that any filth from the bats would drop down.
Carpenter surveyed the ground, which stank of bat guano. The bees didn’t like the smell, but they didn’t hate it either. Bat droppings meant fertile plants, and fertile plants meant lots of flowers and pollen, so Carpenter respected what the bats brought to the cave.
But could there be something else the cave needed?
“I was wondering,” Carpenter shouted to Leafcutter, who was admiring the small patch of flowers. “This cave could be used a whole lot more.”
Leafcutter nodded. “I was thinking the same thing!”
Carpenter flew back down to her sister. “But I’m afraid that doing so would endanger its defenses. We’re safer than we’ve ever been down here, and the Davnir Symphony makes great use of the ceiling and darkness, but… I’m not sure how we could spruce this place up.”
“I know what you mean. This Deep Barrow has water, fertilizer, and almost everything needed to grow the most lush and vibrant plants ever needed.” Leafcutter ran a hand along the petal of a nearby flower. “But what are we in all of this? What happens down here once the Ghost Hive Angorath beckons us to the Great Elsewhere?”
Carpenter shook her head. “It would be a pretty tomb, but a tomb nonetheless…”
Sugarbag joined their conversation. She was chewing on a large piece of pollen. “I still can’t believe our luck! To think that this cave was waiting right here—for us!”
Carpenter put an arm around her sister. “It could be for us. Or it could be something more.”
“How so?” Sugarbag said between bites.
Carpenter paced back and forth, her mind focused on a task she couldn’t quite manifest. “Here’s us, six little bees. We’re sharing this massive cave with bats. But this cave—this Hive, in a way—isn’t meant to be walled up like a fenced domain. We found our way inside. I think we need others who, after we’re done with this place, know that this safe domain will be there for them and other generations after them.”
“But the bats?” Sugarbag said. “They’re using it.”
“Only part of it,” Leafcutter clarified. “And just to ponder our bizarre situation even more: the one place in this cave that is already claimed is the ceiling—the sky! The ground, walls, water, plants, and little sunlight beams are all unclaimed. Nobody’s going to need the ceiling except those bats. It’s like fate put the Davnir Symphony in here just to show us how lively this cavern can be. Fate didn’t just put them here. Fate put as conveniently far away from anything else that might live here.”
Sugarbag raised a hand. “Well there is one issue…”
“What’s that?” Carpenter said.
“You still don't know how the bats feel.”
* * *
The bats returned in the morning to find six bees awake, patiently waiting to speak.
A narrow sliver of sunlight illuminated the bees, shining on them like they were star performers in a stage show. Carpenter stood foremost with Leafcutter and Bumble flanking her. Sugarbag and Honey stood behind them, and Killer hovered off the ground in the rear, ever alert.
“Gracious Symphony,” Carpenter called to them. “We are not so different—bee and bat. At one time, I had thousands of sisters who shared my ideas. We worked, ate, and carried on with our days without care. But through a sequence of happenstance, my sister brood is no more than these five others you see behind me. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.” Carpenter gestured to the other bees. “But living ‘without care’ isn’t living. At one point, we sought to eliminate all strife from our lives. And for the past two days, we’ve been doing just that! Down here in this Deep Barrow where the geyser once roamed, we have protection, camaraderie, and resources. But it’s only us.”
Carpenter opened her wings and floated into the air, the sunlight picking her out like a deity plucking a prime berry among a celestial bush. “And though I have everything I need, I believe that all workers like myself and my kin can’t live ‘without care,’ as we once thought. We have a drive—a need to carry out tasks, whether those tasks be for ourselves or someone else. Some people, such as Bamrella the Bidder of Tomorrow, took advantage of this instinct and forced us into slavery. But when we came together and decided to take the initiative for ourselves, we’ve found that six little bees reaching their Autumn days can experience so much more in this tiny world than what a crazed monarch would have dictated to us. And we believe there are others. Not just bees, but creatures of many lives. Whether squirrel or scorpion, I believe in allowing others to experience a world ‘without care’ so that they are free to care about what is actually worth caring about.”
The Symphony spoke with the calm sternness found in a parent looking for errors in its child’s reasoning, “This would jeopardize the safety of the Deep Barrow, Davnir’s tomb. Are you aware?”
“Fully aware,” Carpenter said. “But if we build this community in our image, then the panic and deviance found in darker societies won’t have a chance to brew. We have water: a gift from Davnir. We have earth: a gift from yourselves. But we lack the sunlight needed to let this land grow.”
The bats shuffled in their chorus. “The more sunlight allowed inside, the less room we will have. And surely six little bees are aware of this fool’s premise: you will be long gone from this blessed world by the time any roots take hold from letting the sun spill through.”
Carpenter looked downward at the little bouquet of flowers sprouting in the sun’s path. “My dearest Symphony, no bee has ever seen a flower from a seed she has planted. But we still plant. We still pollinate. We still make the meadows bloom. Because there will be new voices and new faces once we’re gone. Let us do what we are meant to do. Let us care in a world where people want to live without.”
Paradise though often sweet
Fools the foolish
Trick the tempted world deceit
Fell the fallen
Victory with sugared certain setbacks set to snares
Vanity hath severed solemn scabs and scattered shares
The day began with promise and purpose.
Bumble set out from the Deep Barrow and surveyed the surroundings. The old tourist attraction that was once Davnir Geyser sat undisturbed from the days before. But even though the People no longer tread the geyser's grounds, other life forms still lurked.
The days spent in the Deep Barrow made Bumble forget how raw the wilderness was. Once again, she would have to keep her wits about. Not that she couldn’t stay aware—but the feeling was akin to waking up and forgetting how bright the sun was.
She shimmied through the grass, ever watchful for any denizens that may want to join her in the Deep Barrow. A brown snake politely declined the offer, saying that the crevice was much too difficult for her to slither down. Later, Bumble found a sparrow, but the sparrow said that he preferred trees instead of holes in the ground, and Bumble didn’t think the bees could get a tree to grown in the Deep Barrow without many years of waiting.
No matter, she would simply be aware of—
Bumbles instincts kicked into overdrive! A smell! A dangerous smell!
A heat of aggression and fear boiled within Bumble’s nature. She unsheathed her stinger, then set out to find the source of her triggering hate. Bumble never shared Killer’s urge to defend without prejudice, but this unidentifiable menace would not approach the Deep Barrow as long as Bumble was on patrol!
She cleared a set of trees and finally laid eyes on the source of her alarm. Clad in black fur with a snout and sharp claws, a massive monster sniffed the grown and let out a quiet moan. Bumble heard of these creatures before: they ate everything they found, and they had an especially fond taste for bee's honey.
And Bumble stung the creature right on its nose!
The creature roared and shook its head, delirious in its attempt to find its unseen attacker. In only seconds, the creature decided to flee the scene, aware that bugs with stingers usually attacked in groups. Its nose burned with a pulsing sting, but even though it fled from Bumble, it still had a part of Bumble lodged in its nose.
Bumble faltered, and then the pain struck her as well.
Her stinger was gone!
Nearly disemboweled, Bumble felt a rush of searing pain climb her back, knocking her out of the sky. The tough bee never knew such pain could exist, and as quickly as the battlelust struck her, the urge to flee washed in.
She was dying.
* * *
“Get her inside!”
Honey and Killer hauled Bumble into the Deep Barrow. Both of them were slick with blood from where Bumble was bleeding. Leafcutter was waiting, and she snatched up rolls of paper gauze and wax patching from a makeshift medical kit she had been making. Not too far away, a kaleidoscope of butterflies watched on—Carpenter had found them earlier and invited them into the barrow.
Leafcutter fluttered her wings to heat a piece of wax patching. She pasted it over Bumble’s wound. Killer helped hold the sturdy bee down while Honey spoke words of encouragement, cradling Bumble’s head.
“How is she not already gone?” Leafcutter said, staunching Bumble’s bleeding.
Killer shook her head. “I don’t have a clue. Losing a stinger kills the toughest bees.”
“Not this one,” Honey said, caressing Bumble’s face. “The toughest bee never met our Bumble.”
Half an hour passed, and Leafcutter finished wrapping up Bumble’s wounds. The large bee was breathing steadily, though without much strength. With Leafcutter’s expertise combined with Bumble’s grit, one less life was lost that day.
“Maybe this whole open borders idea is a folly,” Leafcutter muttered.
“What if that bear dug its way in here?” Killer added, agreeing.
Bumble stirred, then opened her eyes. “No…” she said. “We keep going…”
With her last words, Bumble collapsed in a final heap, her body rising and lowering with each breath. None of the bees knew how much rest she needed, but Leafcutter covered her sister in a fibrous blanket and let her spend as much time as she needed regaining her rest. She had earned it.
She had stung a bear and survived.
Harmony, the Chorus
A righteous beam ignites the fight within the rows before
Take the reign forsake the sane less passion knocks once more
What can cast the shadow?
What can stay the foe?
What can fence the land immense
And dam the flood in flow?
Who will stand before me?
Who will guard the fair?
Who will take their arms in mine
And damn the blood now bare?
Bumble’s eyes stayed shut. She woke—in a way—within her dreams. Lucid fever grasped her, and for the faintest of moments, she was sure she had ferried off to the Ghost Hive Angorath in the Great Elsewhere. The sensation didn’t taint her with dread. Had she died, then she would know she gave her life to keep a nasty predator away from her sisters.
There were worse ways to go.
“But it is not your time yet.”
A chorus of voices was speaking to her—but where were they coming from? And where was she? She was in the Deep Barrow, but the cavern felt less barren. Were the bats trying to speak to her? The voice sounded like the bats…
* * *
Killer showed the butterflies the little patch of flowers in the Deep Barrow. They were scared at first, but when the butterflies realized the bees were willing to share their flowers with others, they eased up. The eldest of the butterflies, Hyacinth, spoke on their behalf.
“The highest of thanks, fellow bees,” Hyacinth said, bowing. “We accept your hospitality.”
Killer bowed in return. She wasn’t used to bowing—butterfly customs were so foreign to her! But before she could respond, a voice spoke in her head.
Killer looked towards the Davnir Symphony above her. Surely they hadn’t been the ones to speak? At this time of the day, the bats spent their time sleeping or preening their fur. Most of them were too sleepy to speak in unison—
“Stop doubting yourself.”
That same voice!
“Pardon me, Ms. Killer?” Hyacinth said.
Killer shivered. She had zoned out, forgetting all about the butterflies. She would ask the bats about the strange voice when they woke up. Maybe a group within the Symphony was playing a prank?
“As I was saying,” Hyacinth continued. “There are two other kaleidoscopes of butterflies about the area, and a few burrowing creatures as well who would find this cavern most exceptional…”
* * *
Honey and Sugarbag refused to move. They had recently spoken with two snakes, a tortoise, and a peculiarly spikey creature that none of them recognized—and unfortunately for them, the spikey creature was the only animal that expressed interest in joining the Deep Barrow, so for the past thirty minutes, Honey and Sugarbag were brainstorming about what kind of critter the spikey thing could be. The last thing they wanted was to be embarrassed when introducing the spikey thing to everyone back at the Deep Barrow!
“I think it was a raccoon?” Honey suggested. “But with terrible fur!”
“No, not a raccoon. Raccoons are sneakier,” Sugarbag said. “Can two opossums fuse together to make one super opossum?”
Sugarbag and Honey froze in place.
“Was that you?” Sugarbag said.
Honey’s eyes widened. “I thought you said that!”
Sugarbag started to panic. “I didn’t tell you to wake up!”
The strange voice spoke again. “It’s okay to be wrong.”
Within seconds, Honey and Sugarbag were zooming across the landscape, returning back to the Deep Barrow. The debate regarding the spikey creature could wait—for all they knew, both of them were losing their minds and getting dementia at the same time.
* * *
Carpenter and Leafcutter heard the voice at the same time. They were speaking with a mated pair of brown thrashers, asking them to bring seeds into the Deep Barrow once the crack was wide enough. With more seeds scattered, more plants would grow.
Carpenter stuttered once the mystic speech echoed in her head, then continued speaking to the birds, “As… as I was saying. The Deep Barrow is ripe for use! With enough of us using it, the waterbed and the guano from the bats can create a whole farm of food for—”
“Life for the lifeless… dreams for the sleepers…” the voice added.
Leafcutter put a hand on Carpenter’s shoulder, and they both looked at each other. Without a word between them, they knew that they both heard the same voice. But panic didn’t grip them. This wasn’t the first odd occurrence in the bees’ little lives—weird happenstance was almost a standard nowadays.
“Pardon, but is everything all right?” the male brown thrasher asked, realizing the bees were acting peculiar.
“Oh, sorry!” Carpenter said. “It’s been a strange few days for us.”
* * *
All of the bees convened later that day. Some were terrified, others were confused. But all of them felt a wave of relief once they found out that they weren’t alone in hearing the phantom voice.
“It’s not the Davnir Symphony,” Killer said. “They’re sleeping—and their words are legitimate words. We’re not hearing this noise with our ears. It’s in our head.”
“Well whatever it is, I don’t approve!” Honey said, folding her arms.
“It’s rude to plant mental messages in someone else’s head,” Sugarbag agreed.
Carpenter silenced the bees by holding a hand up. “Whatever the source of this voice may be… do any of you find a sense of... maliciousness? Do we have reason to think there is danger?”
“It told me to stop doubting myself,” Killer said. “Doesn’t sound dangerous to me.”
“We heard it tell us that being wrong isn’t so bad,” Sugarbag said, looking at Honey.
Bumble stirred. She couldn’t fly yet, but she managed a few words before closing her eyes again. “I heard… I heard it speakin’. Said it ain’t my time yet…”
Leafcutter rubbed her hand on Bumble’s back. “It told me and Carpenter something about life for the lifeless, and dreams for the dreamless.”
As soon as the bees divulged their private conversations with the voice, it spoke to all six of them at once, “We are all awake now.”
The bees nearly screamed until Carpenter held up a hand to silence them again. The whole cavern held a spine-tingling air of emptiness with the bees staying so still. Even the bats seemed to make no noise. After giving the unknown presence a minute to speak, Carpenter decided to confront the phantom directly.
“Who are you?” she said.
A rumbling, soothing collection of voices spoke at once. “We are the Harmony, the Chorus. And we have been waiting for someone to hear our song.”
Carpenter nodded, going along with the ghostly speech. “We would love to hear your song!” she said, smiling.
The voice dribbled out as though being poured from an ice-cold basin into a frosty pool. “We are the waves that washed the sky, the great scream that showered the lands above. We are dead—and we are alive—and we are at rest as all life and unlife must be. We are with you and without. We are the plants, the cavern, the world as known within these rocky walls…”
A thought struck Carpenter. She remembered a certain reverence from the bats. “Are you… are you the Davnir Geyser?”
The voice peaked with an excited gale, “There are those who called us Davnir—but are only a flowing source from which this land was once quenched. Yes, we were once an explosion of water cascading into the sky—but those days are long past. We are but a Harmony, an echo of a melody, but together forming the Chorus. And this Deep Barrow is our tomb.”
“Are we… intruding?” Carpenter asked.
“Never,” the Harmony said. “Rock and water and salt and seed are of no self-governance. We are an offering to those who would partake, and none have partaken in us for many, many years. Until you came along—until you, dear bees, set right the world by your desires.”
“So we’re on good terms?” Carpenter said. “This Deep Barrow is meant to… to live again?”
“Live? No,” the Harmony said. “Living things die. This Deep Barrow is meant to thrive.”
Pollen pops with
Never seen before?
Sit in line before the dean of divvied gear in kind
Wards bestowed with treats abound receive the boon-blessed tithe
Harmony rumbled within the stone walls of the Deep Barrow. Its essence lingered, even though the rushing waters that once showered the landscape no longer flowed in stout bursts. Neither alive nor dead, but an essence, Harmony struggled to manifest itself as it had done decades ago.
These were strange times for a guardian spirit indeed—Harmony would never cease to exist, but its presence could wane, much as it had been doing already. In Harmony’s prime, the Davnir geyser exploded daily, and the nearby trees and grasses flourished with energy, feeding life force into the air so that Harmony could dance in their revelry. But since the geyser’s dissipation, the uniqueness that made the Deep Barrow dominion so enjoyable no longer remained.
The Davnir Symphony gave sturdy promise: years passed with only an empty cavern remaining of Harmony’s bastion, but the traveling bat swarm had stumbled across the Deep Barrow and realized that Harmony’s gift of security would let them populate the landscape with more furry flyers. A team of a hundred bats soon became hundreds, and then those hundreds became thousands. Harmony gifted the bats with balance—a Symphony—so that they may communicate among the hundreds of chords the world had to offer.
And with the Symphony’s presence, Harmony stirred from its slumber. A once dead underground stream picked up flow, and the trickle of water at the base of the Deep Barrow evolved into a mild swishing tributary. The crack in the ceiling widened, but Harmony bade the dirt to stay narrow—too much sunlight, and the bats would flee.
But just enough sunlight mixed with just enough water and just enough fertilizer—flowers!
The cavern never had flowers before…
Thus, nature’s pattern continued. The cavern beguiled bats, the bats beguiled the water, and the water with sunlight beguiled plants. And in the recent days, those little flowers beguiled a most unusual little swarm of bees—such a sight Harmony never considered! They had no Hive, no Queen, and no mechanical sense of worth.
But they did have worth of sorts: their own.
These bees arrived as shepherds, victims of battered flocks and misguided fools. They could have holed up in the Deep Barrow as the bats did—but the world had shaped these bees. Nature and the great destined paths led them to their destination.
So Harmony couldn’t let them go to waste.
Harmony had to meet the bees in their desires. All forces and choruses plucking the strings of fate had to guide the needy when they were called, and though these bees stayed mum with their concerns, the geyser spirit sensed their perceived shortcomings. And as it had once quenched the grounds in the forgotten days of the past, Harmony would quench the bees’ doubts.
Harmony owed it to them.
They gave the spirit dreams in a dreamless world…
* * *
Veins of rock split open around the Deep Barrow. No animal would ever notice these cracks, as small and narrow as they were. Harmony branched out his paths, seeking to pry open a latticework between the Deep Barrow and neighboring trees.
Clusters of maple trees pockmarked the land, and these trees would offer Harmony a perfect gift for the new little bees. The earthen cracks jolted up the trunks of these trees, splitting seams into their fleshy cores—but not deep enough to harm or kill the trees. From within, Harmony extracted sweet maple sap, thick and aromatic with flavor. The sap traversed the fissures cracked into the earth, and within mere hours, Harmony reworked the flow of nature to allow the sugary flavors to diffuse within the Deep Barrow’s cavern.
By the end of the day, the whole cavern smelled of a syrupy ambrosia, catalyzing the bees’ moods into an upbeat jolt of emotion.
The bees danced the night away, and the big one with the missing stinger finally emerged from her solace of recovery. A sense of spunk drove through her, and though she could only fly for a few minutes at a time, she joined her sisters in the revelry.
And the bees weren’t alone in their celebration.
Bats, butterflies, birds, and even a porcupine who dug its way into the Deep Barrow—all of them took joy in the bees’ happiness. None of them were wise to Harmony’s little scheme. Nature had a way of adjusting the rules ever-so-slightly, but at just the right degree to bring a little bit of cheer into a world.
The dreamers would dream today.
And the lifeless would live.
Because harmonies can’t harmonize without a melody to lead the dance.
The Day of Feasting
Busy bees are busy still and yet the fanfare rides
Games and feasts?
Songs and shows?
Cheer and dance?
None shall rest their heads tonight
None shall sleep in doubt
None shall wake the morn’ upturned
And all will rise to shout.
Harmony’s little influence stirred a stronger drive within the bees and their new friend-kin. The fragrant sweetness perfuming the Deep Barrow incited the bees to a higher degree of hospitality: with a growing menagerie of others to call neighbors, the bees decided to celebrate the unification of the Deep Barrow landscape with a Day of Feasting.
* * *
“How’s the widening going along, Quill?” Leafcutter said, fluttering up to the crack in the ceiling.
Quill was an old porcupine who Honey and Sugarbag encountered a couple of days before. He offered to widen the crack into the Deep Barrow since the bees were kind enough to let him stay, and by widening the crack, larger animals could find their way inside. Quill was digging the crack in such a way that the entrance to the Deep Barrow would follow the natural curvature of the walls, allowing creatures who couldn’t fly or cling to a wall to climb in and out on a ramplike walkway.
“Slow progress, but progress is still progress!” he said, wiping a dirty claw across his furry forehead. “Trick is to allow enough of an opening to get sunlight in, but keep it secluded so that the bats don’t go blind, you see?”
Elsewhere, Honey and Sugarbag were gathering pollen for the bees and butterflies. Their time spent at Bendiwood taught them how to scavenge up pollen quicker than they ever did at the Hive on the Hill, and though the flowers in the Deep Barrow held enough food to keep the bees and flowers fed for months, Honey and Sugarbag wanted to spruce up the variety. They plucked pollen from fruit trees, vines, and a whole swathe of plants to splay out a buffet for the pollinators back at the Deep Barrow.
Killer stationed herself over the crack to the Deep Barrow, ever watchful for predators. After Bumble nearly gave her life to fend off a potential threat, Killer’s guardian instinct roared to life. She was struck with a sense of valor—a noble warrior meant to steer away ne’er-do-well forces to keep her sisters safe! Had Bumble died, Killer knew she wouldn’t be able to bear the guilt. Defending the bees was Killer’s job—though Bumble did her duty.
She always did her duty.
But for the day, Bumble stayed within the Deep Barrow. Birds and rodents and other bugs brought food inside, setting it down on a rock, and Bumble helped portion out the variety so that animals would know where they could find their meals. Even hibernating squirrels caught wind of the feast—no Gilly-Garucks, unfortunately—and they stirred from their slumber to share some of their hoard with others.
Leading the whole festival was Carpenter, who welcomed visiting animals at the mouth of the crack. Hyacinth brought several more butterflies into the Deep Barrow, and when the sun reached the proper afternoon angle, a massive beam of brightness illuminated half of the cavern. Quill had widened the entrance just in time, and only seconds before the denizens dug into their meals, a final guest slinked inside.
Small and spotted, a deer fawn stumbled down the cavern ramp. She and her doe mother had smelled a massive collection of clover brought into the Deep Barrow by a team of brown thrashers, and though the doe was too large to fit through the entrance, the fawn was able to wriggle her nimble body through.
“Welcome, little fawn! You’re just in time—” Carpenter began to introduce the fawn to everyone, but halfway through Carpenter’s speech, the fawn shoved her face into the pile of clover and began chewing up the delicious plant.
Honey shrugged. “I guess it’s time to eat!” she announced, then grabbed three sticks of pollen pops.
The animals gorged that night, the bees and butterflies doused their desires in pollen and nectar, and the seed-eaters stuffed themselves full on a smorgasbord. Acorns, pecans, and other nuts were passed back and forth among the rodents, and Quill shared several pieces of fruit among himself and the birds. Towering over everyone was the new fawn, who had enough clover gathered by the thrashers to feed herself three days over.
For the first time in decades, the Deep Barrow bloomed in full cheer. The bees exchanged stories of their plight, then marveled at the insanity that their fellow forest dwellers endured in their own paths of life. The bees confirmed that they had made the right choice: that letting others into their lives would satiate their desires, and that a world ‘without care’ also meant a world with nothing to care for.
And tonight, the bees cared a great deal.
With the right nudge, everything from the highest-flying bird to the lowest rodent lived in Harmony.
“It’s time to go,” the father said.
“And never turn back ‘round.
It’s time to leave my sword behind
And bare my head once crowned.”
“It’s time to rule,” the mother said.
“And have your destined fate.
It’s time to wave the sceptered hand
And sooth the calm from hate.”
Carpenter fluttered to her senses. She had fallen asleep in one of the flowers at the bottom of the Deep Barrow. As she rubbed her eyes, she couldn’t help but smile at the scene surrounding her. Quill the porcupine was dozing off under a pile of straw with several rabbits snuggled up next to him. Were there rabbits at the feast yesterday? Carpenter couldn’t remember. The fawn was nowhere to be seen, most likely having wandered off with its mother. The brown thrasher couple had scratched out a next in the wall, and Hyacinth’s collection of butterfly brethren rested along the southern wall, looking no different than a meadow of orange flowers. The Davnir Symphony was gone—out having their own feast, no doubt.
“We are so very proud of you, Carpenter,” Harmony said, its voice reverberating in Carpenter’s head.
Carpenter managed a sheepish smile. “Yeah… it was a good night, wasn’t it?” she whispered.
Harmony chuckled. “No need to speak so softly. The others won’t wake up.”
Carpenter laughed. “I don’t know—Killer is always alert.”
“They won’t wake up unless I allow it,” Harmony added.
The comment struck Carpenter strangely. What natural control did this geyser spirit have over the animals in the Deep Barrow? “That’s, um, something I did not know.”
“Worry not,” Harmony rumbled. “I mean no ill will by these actions. To be truthful, in only a few moments, I will mean nothing at all.”
“How so?” Carpenter said.
“Order has been restored to the Deep Barrow. What was once askew is now balanced. The Davnir geyser was a source of reverie and excitement in the past—a leyline along an earthen path impossible for living creatures to witness. But I live along these lines. I plow the fields that sprout on the tangent of life and death. There is a shimmer that separates the proper worlds: the World of Life, the Great Elsewhere, and the leyline-charted slate that connects both. That slate is my true domain. And even spirits must return.”
Carpenter’s eyes bolted open—any hint of sleep had fled her senses. “Wait, you’re dying?”
The spirit smiled. Carpenter couldn’t see the gesture, but she could feel it. Harmony’s emotions radiated out of the Deep Barrow. The cavalcade of joy set Carpenter’s comrades into a deep slumber, but it tugged at her little heart. Harmony was such a warm spirit—a sensation that the bees never knew existed in the world, and as soon as the bees opened the Deep Barrow to their neighbors, Harmony was going to leave?
“I’m not dying, little bee,” Harmony said, still smiling. “Spirits don’t die. Spirits don’t live. Spirits ride currents and bolster worldscars, healing what is needed. We imprint off of joy, then take that joyous moment and find ways to spread it. You’ve brought that joy, Carpenter. You’ve given life to a dusty, old, dry cavern.”
“But we need you!” Carpenter said. “You’ve shown us that there is more to this world than the fancies of six little bees!”
“My dear, the fancies of six little bees is exactly the peak that this world needs.”
Carpenter’s eyes welled up. She could already feel Harmony’s presence begin to waver. That shimmering veil it had spoke of started to crumble, and the magic that steeped the Deep Barrow lifted away.
“You don’t need me, little bee,” Harmony said, its voice growing soft. “But they need you. Your guidance, your determination, your intelligence, and your vast knowledge of the world have guided six bees through the best and worst. You faced evil Queens, the People, scorpions, robber flies, wasps, false gods, and old bird monsters. Yet here you are. Six little bees and uncountable other creature—with one mighty leader.”
“How am I supposed to lead anything anymore? I’m a bee. I’m… short on time. I’m old!”
“Your life is but a happenstance to some of these creatures. But your life is yours. All they need, these creatures, is someone to help them when they need the help. Short on time? Mere days are all you need, little Carpenter. Lead the world that you can see. As I once did.”
With Harmony’s last words, the spirit presence disappeared, leaving a small void in an untouchable world that Carpenter could barely graze with her senses. After the shimmer faded, the other animals stirred a bit, but Killer was the only one to wake.
“Can’t sleep?” Killer said, crawling up to Carpenter. “Neither can I. Had too much fun—still excited!” She smiled.
Carpenter wanted to cry. She wanted to howl through the hole in the ceiling. She wanted to curse Harmony and all of its tricks—but as she tried to rally a hateful barrage, she only managed a few words, “I had fun, too.”
And she knew it to be true.
Killer patted her sister on the back. “I’m going to go fly around outside. Maybe wear myself out so I can sleep. I’m sure you got some big plans for these folks tomorrow, huh?” Killer said, then soared off.
You’ve got big plans…
“Lead the world that you can see." Harmony had said.
Carpenter smiled. "I have seen a lot."
She dozed off, dreaming as she had never dreamed before.
Hours tick ‘round
Lined in furrows
Mortal matrons slow to rally
Endless landscape pure
Children gathered here for story
Wake the world endured
Light at rest
“Why did we do it?” Carpenter asked her sisters.
They had gathered in a circle at the entrance to the Deep Barrow. The sun had come up a couple of hours previously, illuminating the cave with more light than ever. The Davnir Symphony slumbered on one side of the cave, easily out of the way of the sun. The little stream from the Davnir geyser glistened in the sunbeams, and if Carpenter squinted hard enough, she could see that the stream had deepened by a couple of inches.
The Deep Barrow was coming back to life!
“Again,” Carpenter said. “Why did we do it? Why did we let all of these animals—possibly dangerous animals—into our secluded home?”
The bees fidgeted, unsure of how to answer. Carpenter didn’t intend for the conversation to be an interrogation, but she wanted her sisters to recognize their impulses and come to terms with their emotions.
“I think I be knowin’ what you mean,” Bumble said, wincing at the ache in her abdomen. “Sometimes you don’t need a reason. Sometimes… sometimes it’s just good to be good.”
Carpenter’s eyes beamed. “Right. Sometimes it’s just good to be good.”
“Some of those animals probably never talked to each other!” Honey interjected. “Everyone is so busy trying to get by or prepare for Winter. The cold seasons don’t matter to us bees. We’re… we’re not meant to deal with them. So why not have some fun while we still can?”
“Also a good response, Honey! We helped develop a community,” Carpenter said.
“Anxiety,” Killer added. “This time of the year brings stress. Some of those creatures—and us as well—need to know that it’s all right to relax.”
“And fellowship!” Sugarbag said. “I learned so much about our neighbors, and if anything terrible happens, I feel like we are able to help each other out. Mr. Quill was kind enough to dig out the crack right here in the Deep Barrow. And he’s covered in stingers, just like us! If he stays here, this place will be pretty safe if a bear comes by again.”
“Aye, Mr. Quill is the ultimate bee!” Bumble said, snickering.
“We learned how to survive as well,” Leafcutter said. “The rodents store food and the birds migrate. We aren’t the only ones trying to carve out an existence in the world—and the world doesn’t have to be cruel if there are enough animals like us around.”
Carpenter took in all of their answers, and she couldn’t be more pleased with her sisters. Everyone had grown in the past few days, even in their elder years. There was still so much more to learn about the world, and her sisters’ youthful curiosity kept them bright and fun.
For all purposes, they should be old crone worker bees right now.
“The Deep Barrow is in need, sisters,” Carpenter began. “And we are filling that need. But we can’t do this forever. Chances are we won’t be able to do this for even another week. Age has a way of reminding us of our place in the world, and our place will soon be vacant. So I’m tasking us with being a bastion of benevolence. We choose aide over selfishness—charity over pride. Work is fine, but it’s time to care again.”
Carpenter and her sisters spent the rest of the day investigating their neighbors and learning about their troubles. What hardships they could alleviate, they would do so to the best of their abilities. Six bees couldn’t accomplish much physically, but with enough able-bodied animals taking influence from the bees’ selflessness, a ripple bounced among the Deep Barrow citizens.
By the end of the day, Carpenter finally understood what Harmony intended. There was a balance to keep in the Deep Barrow, and with six little bees showing everyone how easily a day can be brightened by showing kindness, affection, and understanding…
… Spring might as well be here already.
Such snuff is the reign mere borrowed
Heads of crown handed down
Rings of rule now fooled
We were never meant to lead for long.
“Leaders don’t live.”
And life doesn’t lead.
It flows, spills, ripples, and rides the wave.
Then rejoin the tide once stirred.
Carpenter forgot most of the animal's names already.
For the past few days, most creatures within a kilometer of the Deep Barrow caught wind of the bees’ antics with the neighboring animals. Word passed from beak to muzzle, from muzzle to snout, and snout to mandible. Nobody could fathom how six bees late in their age were able to accomplish and command so much.
Carpenter herself couldn’t fly anywhere without moths, snakes, or beetles giving her their blessings. Even the Davnir Symphony sang praises for the bees when they left for their nightly feedings. Quill himself took charge as an amateur foreman, digging enclaves and tunnels within the Deep Barrow so that more animals could make their homes inside.
“Carpenter! Look!” Sugarbag said, tugging on Carpenter’s wing. She pointed past the dilapidated People structure, where the treeline met the overgrown grass.
A warren of rabbits—more than thirty—slinked out of the treeline, their ears twitching every direction. Mother rabbits, father rabbits, and several little rabbits hopped along, and before Carpenter could fathom this strange happenstance, Quill bellowed out a hearty welcome near the mouth of the Deep Barrow.
“Welcome! Rodents and fluff-tail-kin! I’ve built several burrows for you already—may your Winter sleep be hardy and rejuvenating."
Carpenter flew towards Quill, her mouth agape. “Mr. Quill, this is astounding!”
The old porcupine chuckled. “Heard a warren of rabbits lost their home when a tree toppled over and the roots dug up all their tunnels. That’s why I’ve been digging for so long. Can’t let them be without a home!”
“And the other tenants?” Carpenter asked. “The Davnir Symphony? What do the rest think of this sudden… well, it is an act of charity, and I don’t mind—”
“Ah, they’ll grow to like it!” He gestured to himself with a claw. “This old codger knows a thing or seven about ensuring nobody gets to thickheaded.” He bristled the spines on his back. “Besides, if I don’t think a certain someone should be allowed inside, I’ll just sit at the entrance with my butt facing out.”
Carpenter chuckled. “You certainly have a knack for management!”
Quill threw back his head and laughed, slapping his belly in a raucous display of humor. “Management! Aye, we’ll use that term! Sounds good to me!”
With his last giggle, Quill shuffled over to the incoming warren. His voice dropped from being loud and boisterous to a calm, soothing timbre. He welcomed the warren with several quaint greetings, then helped the older rabbits down the ramp to the Deep Barren first. Within seconds, Quill’s demeanor had shifted. Carpenter marveled at his ability to adjust to such situations as needed.
And Carpenter knew she was correct—he did have a knack for management.
The old bee told Sugarbag to summon their sisters, and within the hour, the bees had gathered in a tree not too far from the entrance of the Deep Barrow.
“I’ve been thinking,” Carpenter told them. “This place—this sanctuary—can’t risk falling apart once we are gone.”
Honey nodded. “It’s so pleasant. And I love what the animals are saying about us, but you’re right.”
“Agreed,” Bumble added. “It ain’t right that we’re such pillars o’ this community. Time ain’t goin’ to be kind to us in the week to come. And it grows colder by the day.”
“The day will come when the animals will have no more bees left to praise,” Leafcutter said solemnly. “What then?”
“It’s time to redirect the praise,” Carpenter said, peering down at Quill. “Harmony passed rule of this domain over to me—but I’m not meant to keep it. I’m meant to pass it on. We need to choose someone who will ensure the sanctity of this domain after Winter tears through.”
The other bees followed her eyes. They too settled their sights on Quill.
“Mr. Quill?” Honey said. “I think it’s a marvelous idea! He’s old and rascally with enough wit to keep people in line.”
Bumble patted herself on the rump. “He won’t have a problem stingin’ intruders either!”
“I admire his spunk!” Killer agreed.
“He knows so much, also. It’s like he’s a walking library of this whole land,” Sugarbag said.
“His determination to dig out the Deep Barrow is precise,” Leafcutter said. “He doesn’t want to disturb the Davnir Symphony, but he understands that others need light and access. He can ride the line between two different sides with just enough grace to keep everyone happy.”
Carpenter smiled at her sisters. “I suppose the vote is unanimous then?”
* * *
“You want me to take charge?” Quill said, aghast.
The bees had motioned him over to the dilapidated People structure so that the other animals couldn’t hear them.
“Someone has to,” Carpenter said. “We can only do so much. We’re bees!”
“Only do so much!” Quill gasped, shaking his head. “You six have literally changed the entire demanor of this land. At this time of the year, animals would be squabbling over territory and carving out their own little dominions—ever-spiteful of intruders. But you six… you’ve shown there is good to be had! Bees or no bees, I trust your stingers as well as my own!”
“You don’t understand,” Leafcutter said. “We’re old now.”
“Aye, so am I!” Quill said, puffing up his chest. “And you don’t see me letting it keep me down!”
“Mr. Quill,” Honey said, her voice as serious as ever. “Bees like us only live for a little more than a month. We’re not porcupines. You still have years to go!”
Quill shook a little, and his eyes sank. “Only… only a month?” His panicked eyes shuffled among them.
“Only a month,” Honey agreed.
“But… but how do you do it?” Quill sounded close to crying. “A month isn’t… it’s not fair! That’s not fair to anybody, to be spat out into the world and having barely a few weeks’ worth of time to leave your mark!”
“Mr. Quill, it’s okay!” Leafcutter raised her hands to calm him down. “It’s okay! It’s…”
“It’s just how life is,” Killer said. “In the end, a month is all we really need.”
“We’ve come to terms with it,” Sugarbag said. “We’re just a gaggle of old ladies, but we’ve had such a magnificent time with our month.”
“The best month any bee will ever have, if you ask me!” Bumble said.
Quill calmed down, then narrowed his eyes, looking at all of the bees in turn. They needed him to carry out their task—to keep the Deep Barrow a proper sanctuary for those around. They needed him to dig burrows, to welcome visitors, to steer away the monsters, and to apply every ounce of know-how in his well-seasoned head to keep Harmony’s gift pure.
“Of course I will,” Quill said, sheepishly. “What lunatic would turn down such a great purpose?”
The bees hugged him.
The seed to survival had been planted.
Once six, now five, so dwindles the Hive.
Walk with me ye child of sisters
Walk with me and sing
Walk with me and bid your well-gone
Walk and rest your wings
Garden blossoms perk unfurl
Inscribed in epigraph,
“She is brave who marches first
to Ghost Hive Angorath.”
Autumn began fading on that dreary morning. The sky darkened to a light gray color, and most of the burrowing animals stayed within the Deep Barrow. The little stream crossing along the floor deepened even more, giving the creatures plenty to drink. Quill woke up before most of the others to welcome the Davnir Symphony back from their night of feasting.
Killer was the second to wake up. Even at her age, she still carried an impervious sense of servitude. She was always a warrior, and though she encountered no more monsters, she couldn’t shake the fortitude ingrained in herself since her larva days.
She bid Quill a good morning, and they exchanged a knowing glance: Deep Barrow was going to be perfectly fine. Any anxiety the bees and Quill once had about Deep Barrow’s future had passed. Quill carried out his morning chores as hearty as a porcupine half his age. He reshaped a burrow that had collapsed a bit, then helped sweep the Davnir Symphony’s guano into a hole so that there would be fertilizer for the future.
He was born to be a manager!
Killer fluttered over the sleeping butterflies and landed near Carpenter’s waxroom. She wanted to get her sister up extra early to help Quill sort out any questions—or heck, going out and exploring wouldn’t be too bad either!
“Hey, Carpenter,” Killer said, nudging her sleeping sister. “It’s getting brisk, huh? We might need the birds and Quill to weave a lid of sorts for the entryway. Don’t want the cold to creep in, huh?”
Carpenter didn’t move.
“Come on sleepy-face.” Killer nudged her again. “We’re not going to be those pitiful ladies who snooze all day, are we? We’ve still got some life left…”
Carpenter still didn’t move.
Killer placed a hand on Carpenter’s face. “Wake up…”
But Killer knew her sister would never wake up. She was asleep now, a tenant of the Ghost Hive Angorath. She had been shepherded away during the night to the Great Elsewhere, her month of divvied time running out a tad earlier than normal. Killer’s sister had done what she needed to do. She had led the bees from the Hive on the Hill. She had abandoned the ever-worsening Bendiwood Grafthome and its caretaker, Jai. Even when they settled in a supposed paradise, Carpenter had found a way to improve on that.
To improve on paradise…
Who would ever dare such an act?
Killer’s anxiety didn’t creep back in. She knew this day would come. In her own mild selfishness, she had prayed that she herself would be the first one to go, but seeing her sister—her strong sister—no longer rouse from her nightly dreams?
“We’ll be okay, Carpenter,” Killer said, huddling in close to her. “We’ll be okay. Everyone else will be okay. You did what you needed to do, and it would be cruel of this world to ask anymore out of you. I’ll… I’ll see you soon enough.”
* * *
They decided that Carpenter was best left to the will of the stream in the Deep Barrow.
The stream lazily exited the Deep Barrow through several small channels, easily large enough for a bee to fit through. Carpenter’s sisters carried her along, shocked at the sudden loss. Even knowing that their own time was ticking away, none of them could truly prep for the departure of their fearless and booksmart sister. She was the one who had saved them all.
Yet here they were, saying goodbye.
Quill kept silence among the residents within the Deep Barrow—nobody would sully the ceremony with undue disrespect. Not that Quill needed to do so. The animals gave Carpenter a proper goodbye, each one aware that the grand scheme of uniting the Deep Barrow sanctuary began with Carpenter’s actions.
She slipped away down the stream, as silent and still as the grieving atmosphere. Her sisters watched longingly, hand in hand, proud of the strong lady Carpenter had grown into. As she bobbed beneath the surface and disappeared forever down the cascading waterways, Quill’s heart filled with the utmost respect he had ever felt for himself: Carpenter had bestowed the task of caretaker unto him, and then she left him.
He had been chosen by the smartest being he had ever met in his whole life. The Deep Barrow would live on forever at his will.
“That’s that,” Killer said, managing a smile. “Her troubles are over, everyone. She is proud of us all, much as we are of her. Come, sisters.” She held her hands out. “Let’s go see the beautiful world Carpenter left for everyone.”
The remaining five bees spent the cool day flitting among the trees, shrubs, rocks, and open meadows. Though broken, they knew that such events were the true nature of life. And as much as they wanted to grieve, they knew they had no reason to. They would be reunited soon enough, given the mark of time ticked on. Carpenter would be welcoming them, as she would want to do.
The dreamer with the greatest dreams would dream forevermore.
Lumber the slow forms side to side
Rest in tandem beast
Drops of rain-crust grit the puff-shale
Speckle hillside sleet.
Autumn flaps its weary eyelids
Sings a tune drawn low
Gray clouds billow wroth the wind-shire
“Now I see,” Says so the bee-girl
“Where the world must die.”
“Born again,” Says so the bee-girl.
“But not return, will I.”
The bats didn’t return that morning.
To be fair, nobody could tell when morning actually began that day.
“It’s that rolling gray sky,” Quill said. “Winter’s vanguard, as I call it.”
He, Honey, and Sugarbag were traipsing through the cold woods. Most of the hibernating animals didn’t leave the Deep Barrow, and Quill had been telling the bees all about his past winters. One time he couldn’t find a burrow, but he holed up underneath a cabin from one of the People. He stayed under there until February of the following year, which is when the People’s dog-beast tried biting at him. Quill ensured the bees that the dog-beast learned a valuable lesson about biting porcupine rears that day!
He then spoke of the Winter where he found a little nest of rabbits barely weaned from their mother. The mother rabbit was nowhere to be found, and he tried his hardest to keep them from falling prey to the cold, but porcupines couldn’t care for baby rabbits very well, so the Winter claimed their little hearts.
Life could be cruel like that.
“But life isn’t cruel,” Honey said, her attitude still upbeat.
“I suppose you’re right,” Quill said. “It can seem that way though, especially when you’ve dealt with a lot of heartache.”
“Saying life is cruel hints that life can be malicious and mean. As if it wants to see living things suffer. But life doesn’t work that way,” Honey explained.
“Well said!” Sugarbag agreed.
Honey’s eyes scanned the treetop canopies. Their leaves had faded from bright green to dull brown. “I think life is just life. There are long lives, and there are short lives. Rabbits overall will be fine. It’s terrible that those baby rabbits died, but their mother may have been eaten by a bird or other carnivore. It’s terrible for the rabbit, but the bird gets to live another day.”
“Even at the Hive on the Hill,” Sugarbag added. “We worked all day, and that was because we kept other bees fed and happy. When we flew away, we gave up that responsibility as well as giving up our own lives. Most bees die when they leave their Hives. We would have died if we stayed. So why did we choose to brave the hardships of an outside life? Because the fear of the familiar outweighed the fear of the unknown.”
“Life happens,” Honey said. “We can grieve over our losses, or we can count our days to come and make sure they are the best we can make of them.
Quill grunted with a smile, “You two are beginning to sound like Carpenter. I like it when you two sound like Carpenter.”
* * *
Bumble, Killer, and Leafcutter sat on top of the dilapidated People structure outside the Deep Barrow. The other tenants stayed safe and snug deep underground. With their final days approaching, the bees didn’t give much care for the dangers that lurked in the freezing cold atmosphere. If today was their time to go, then today it would be!
“I wonder what Carpenter would be doing right now?” Killer said.
“Probably sittin’ here with us wonderin’ what she should be doin’ right now,” Bumble said.
Leafcutter and Killer laughed. Even with the sun hiding behind the thick clouds, the bees still found a way to shine some light.
“We did it, though,” Killer said, putting an arm around Bumble and Leafcutter. “We built a Hive of sorts. Though Carpenter didn’t much care for Hives anymore, I think she would be ecstatic about this little endeavor we’ve helped bring to life.”
“It’s a good day,” Leafcutter said.
“A marvelous day,” Bumble agreed.
“One of the finest days ever,” Killer said.
The sun never showed itself the rest of that day, though the bats soon returned. The bees couldn’t help but laugh at their resilience—they managed to find happiness in the absence of their sister. Even the sun couldn’t bear to show itself in such a mood.
Outplaying the sun?
Carpenter would have liked that.
“Shake the weary wings to muster forth one last parade.”
“Rise again endearing ladies we do not yet fade.”
“Dare we turn our purposed doctrine down to those in need?”
“Nay we batter back the cold and hail the hands now freed.”
One last flight
“To the sky! To the sky!”
One last stubborn storm
One last task
“To the sky! To the sky!”
One last vanguard swarm
Jianna and her fawn, Tola, were running out of time. They had tried to cross the nearby river, but the little deer was much too small to make it all the way across. Jianna had to swim back and push her daughter to shore.
But Tola was staggering now. She had inhaled too much water, and the coldness was seeping into her fur. The temperature had already dropped below freezing, and in the forested countryside, the icy chill would cling to her if she couldn’t find any shelter. But everywhere Jianna looked, she couldn’t find a suitable place for Tola to recover. Staying still meant certain doom—the only way to keep Tola’s body temperature high was to move, but Tola would tire soon.
And at that point, what else was there to do?
* * *
Killer surveyed the cold domain. She didn’t like sleeping very much. As old as she was, she valued each precious hour. Her body wanted to stay in and sleep, and every morning was a chore for her to crawl out of her waxroom and not waste the day away. She had to prove to herself that there was still grit left within her ailing body.
She had made her peace with the world, much as Carpenter had done. She had found solace in no longer being a busy bee, taking her retirement in cool stride. Chances were that Killer would fly out into the countryside that day and never return, whether from satiating her final desire to see what secrets remained in the world or from falling prey to something nasty.
Either way, she took the risk.
What was life without a little risk?
As she soared beneath crooked branches and over dead grass, she spotted a strange shape shambling through the woods. Not one to deny her curiosity, Killer zoomed towards the strange thing and was dumbfounded at what she saw.
This was the fawn and doe who came to the feast a few days ago!
Killer zipped down to the mother and daughter. The mother had hunkered down, wrapping herself around the fawn. They were nestled near a tree, but the fawn’s constant shivering showed that she was nowhere near warm enough. Killer noticed the little animal was soaked with water, and tiny flecks of ice crystals were forming along her nose and eyelids.
“Excuse me, madam!” Killer asked.
The doe swung her head around in a panic. “Who’s there?”
Killer steadied herself in front of the doe so that she could be seen. “Don’t worry! I’m just a bee from the Deep Barrow—”
“The what? I’m sorry. I can’t speak now,” the doe said, her voice quivering with panic.
Killer didn’t want to be mean, but the mother deer was clearly lost. She didn’t know what to do with her fawn, and her meandering panic would soon bring the death of her child. So Killer flew into the doe’s face and screamed, “Listen to me, you young klutz! That fawn is going to die unless you do something about it!”
The doe stuttered, “I don’t know what to do! It’s too cold for her, and she almost drowned in the river when we—”
“Just follow me!” Killer said, then flew behind the doe. “You were at our home a few days ago. The fawn ate a bunch of clover. You’ll have to stay outside, but the young one can come in. She’ll be safe from the weather.”
The doe leaned back. “How do I know I can trust you?”
Killer wasn’t surprised at the doe’s trust issues. Deer were always skittish creatures who doubted everyone except themselves. “You don’t know. But you do know that your baby is going to die out here, right? So come on!”
Killer turned to leave, giving the mother doe no more chances. If the doe was going to be too stubborn and untrustworthy, then her daughter’s blood would be on her hands. But Killer’s many days spent negotiating with others taught her that sometimes being firm and tough is the best way to get someone else to follow your lead, and as soon as Killer disappeared behind a patch of bushes, she heard the doe and the fawn following behind her.
“Wait! Wait!” the doe shouted. “We’re coming!”
“That’s what I like to hear!” Killer said, then slowed her flight so that the deer could keep pace.
* * *
“Well I’ll be a pokey opossum,” Quill said as he laid a reed-thatched cover over the mouth to the Deep Barrow. “Those are the deer from the feast!”
Quill saw Killer and two deer emerge from the woods, and Killer had a smug look on her face: the visage of a retiree who still had something to prove. Quill didn’t know where Killer had gone off to that day, and her sisters didn’t seem the least concerned at her disappearance. “Killer will be Killer,” they told him, so Quill had to get used to the bees’ apathetic outlook on safety. At their age, what was worth trading safety for only a few more days of existence?
“The fawn is almost collapsed,” Killer said as she approached Quill. “She needs to stay down here.”
“No room for the mother,” Quill said. “She can’t fit, and I can’t make the entry any larger.”
Killer shook her head. “The mother will stay outside. She just needs the fawn to recover.”
Quill welcomed little Tola back to the Deep Barrow, then showed her inside. He let her take shelter in his own burrow, then asked some of the rabbits to build up a little batch of shredded leaves to help keep the doe extra warm.
“Sorry about the situation, Miss,” Quill told Jianna. “We’ll keep a good eye on your daughter. These bees are tough old ladies, and one day I’m sure you’ll be just as tough!”
Jianna nodded, no longer worried about her fawn. “I’m going to rest then. It’s been… It’s been a long day.”
Quill and Jianna bid each other goodbye, and Jianna took refuge in the abandoned People structure. There were enough walls still standing to block the wind, and a collapsed chunk of wall gave her enough hovel space to huddle. She felt empty without her fawn to curl around, but given the good charity offered to Tola during the feast, she believed the animals in the Deep Barrow had her fawn’s best interest at heart.
“You must be Jianna,” Honey said, fluttering over to the People structure where Jianna was staying. “I’m Honey!”
“And I’m Leafcutter,” Leafcutter said, popping up next to her sister.
“And I’m Sugarbag.”
“My name’s Bumble.”
“And you know me already,” Killer said.
The bees spent the rest of the night with Jianna, letting her tell them all about her daughter. As the deer spoke, a glint of happiness formed in her eyes, and for the first time in weeks, Jianna felt a sense of ease wash through her. The five little old bees seemed genuine in their concern, asking the young mother how difficult it was for her to raise a daughter in this time of the year. Before too long, Jianna realized she had spent hours blabbering to the bees.
Nobody had offered to listen so much in the past.
And when she was finished, she heard the most marvelous tale from the bees about themselves. She heard about the Hive on the Hill, Bendiwood the Grafthome, the Emperor Makamira, and so on, and so on. She even heard the many tales of Carpenter, the bees’ intelligent sister, who would see them in the next few days.
How wonderful of an outlook these bees had!
Jianna finally rested her head and dreamed. She dreamed of her daughter, mighty and strong, much like the bees who comforted her. But she knew that such dreams would end, and the best kind of dreams were dreams made real.
She would promise those dreams to her daughter.
She would promise her that waking up didn’t mean all dreams ended.
People of the Frost Rites
We’re old now
Old ladies on old wings
And self-guided sojourns
So long ago we bid our way
So long ago…
“We were so young then.”
The world is old now too
At least to us
We who walk with immortals
Until the days grow longer
Until the days…
“We were so young then.”
“How much longer, grandpa?”
“Just a few minutes. I know it can get you antsy. I was the same way when my grandpa brought me up to see the geyser.”
“But you said the geyser hasn’t been working in years.”
“No, I said it hasn’t been working in decades!”
“Why are we going then?”
“It’s important to visit these old sites. It’s important to remember.”
“… But I don’t remember anything. I wasn’t there.”
“It’s for me then, all right? It’s for your dear old gramps.”
* * *
“Honey, look!” Sugarbag tugged on her sister’s leg. “We have a visitor!”
The two bees flitted to the top of a nearby tree, then huddled together. The maneuver was enough to get the both short of breath. Even Honey felt her dancing demeanor slacking in the last couple of days. But together, the bees sat still and watched with curious glee as one of the rumbling People machines rolled through a tree path and stopped near the People-built structure.
Stepping out of the machine were two People. One was tall like Jai, and the other couldn’t be more than three feet tall. But they were so different compared to the People back at Bendiwood. They were larger, and hardly any of their skin was visible. Carpenter would surely know why these people looked so peculiar, but Sugarbag contributed the odd appearance to the weather.
“You know, some animals change their coats based on the seasons,” Sugarbag said. “Maybe the People do the same thing?”
“Well the large one has a lot more fur on his face!” Honey said. “And his hands look like furry hooves. Where are the fingers? It’s just a thumb and… and a big flat space!”
The older People rubbed his mitted hands together, then took the younger one by the arm. They meandered around the area, the younger one hopping around whatever caught her attention. The bees were so fascinated by the People that they never noticed the little fawn, Tola, poking up from the hole to the Deep Barrow. She stared at the People, her ears poking up in search of danger, and before Honey or Sugarbag could tell her to stop, Tola trudged out and walked up to the People!
“Oh no!” Honey said, shivering. “That’s… that’s…”
Sugarbag placed an arm on Honey’s back. “Just wait.”
The little People jumped when it saw Tola, and the taller one froze in place. Neither of them wanted to startle the fawn. After standing in silence for a few moments, the little People stepped up to Tola and reached out a hand to Tola’s face. The fawn didn’t flinch, but instead lowered her head and allowed the People to stroke her. The little People let out a bright laugh, then called out to the taller one, who gingerly approached Tola and began patting her along the back.
The two People continued to explore the Deep Barrow ruins, and Tola followed them at every step. For an hour they climbed trees, peeked around old structures, and picked at ice slivers forming along the trees.
After enough play, the People climbed back into their machine-beasts and returned to the woods, no doubt off to whatever town or city they had come from. Tola poked around the outside a little bit more, then sauntered back into the Deep Barrow. When she had disappeared into the hole, her mother emerged from a secluded hiding spot along the treeline.
Jianna looked at Honey and Sugarbag with a face smeared in wonder and excitement.
The bees smiled back at her.
To think, had they stayed at the Hive on the Hill, there would be oh-so-many marvels in this beautiful world that they would have missed.
What was life for, if not for living?
“It’s cold out here...”
“It’s warm in the Hive on the Hill...”
It’s warm where the Queen on her Sugar Throne,
Coddles the slave-child crowd and drones,
Beguiles enticing promised homes
“But I am mine
And mine alone.”
It’s warm where the Six Queens traced their path,
Unbound by choice to whip and wrath,
Let’s flirt like girls with Angorath,
“It’s time to go,
It’s time to laugh.”
Bumble woke before the others. She reached for a satchel of food, supplies, and minor survival gear. Leafcutter had put it together for her the night before. Though Bumble couldn’t see as well as she used to, she gave the contents one quick glance before putting it all away.
The bag would only weigh her down.
She stretched her wings and gave one last survey of the Deep Barrow. The Davnir Symphony snoozed in the cold morning, Quill snored with heaving breaths, and the rodents nuzzled each other in a great huddle.
Everything would be fine.
* * *
Leafcutter doublechecked several of the little tunnels and nooks within the Deep Barrow, ensuring that no freezing air would leak in. With all of the hibernating animals inside, the room temperature stayed at a lukewarm median. Body heat in mass made for a fantastic defense against the chill!
The old bee dug through her waxroom one last time, then plucked out a tiny sealed wax cup. She bit the tip off of it, and a soothing aroma spilled out. This was her last dose of the honey brewed from the dangerous plant back at Bendiwood.
She downed the drink in one quick gulp, and then she laughed at her childishness. As magnificent as it had tasted when she was younger, the honey tasted no better than any regular meal now. Her palate for life had grown since then—joy wasn’t a disposable taste anymore.
She left the empty cup in her waxroom, then she left her waxroom forever.
* * *
Killer stood before Quill, whose snoring nearly shook the whole cavern. The porcupine was a mighty warrior, yet smart enough to negotiate among others. She marveled at his ability to fight, with a backside full of stingers that could keep stabbing and stabbing. Bees would die after one sting, unless that bee was as tough as Bumble.
One last glance at her own stinger, and Killer smirked at how much she wanted to be a little gladiator when she was younger. Dying in defense of her Hive or sisters was once the only satisfactory way she wanted to leave the world.
But there were better ways to go than in the heat of a fight.
Killer unsheathed her stinger, then gripped the end of it. She grunted at the pressure, but there was plenty of strength still left in her. With a swift twist, she snapped the sharp end of her stinger off. All that remained attached to her was a little nub that she retracted back inside.
She laid the stinger tip in front of Quill.
She left the Deep Barrow for the final time.
* * *
Honey gave Tola one last little kiss on the forehead. The baby deer still slept in the Deep Barrow. Her mother waited outside diligently.
Goodbyes were becoming easier and easier for the little bee.
* * *
Sugarbag tidied up her waxroom, keeping it nice and neat for whoever might move in after she had left. The other waxrooms were empty by now, her sisters having already met up at the rendezvous. Now they just waited on her, but Sugarbag was never one to rush the necessities.
She remembered how scared she was when her sisters found her hiding in the little metal container all those days ago. She was sure that night was going to be her last…
Oh, how naïve she was back then!
Before she left, she reached into one of the cubbies in her waxroom and withdrew a little sheet of wax paper. On her way out of the Deep Barrow, she pinned the paper to the entrance so that everyone would see it on their way out:
“We’re off to see Carpenter. We will love you always.”
Sugarbag heard her sisters give a quick call for her, and she scurried out of the entryway to find them. With one last goodbye to the Deep Barrow, the sisters shirked all their worries and set out. They soared with neither destination nor goal into the cold, frosty wilderness.
Quiet morn lain brisk and slow
Nights wane longer, flights fly low
White frost billows cast the snow
Winter saunters, and ends the show
Laughter drips in star-crossed glee
Droves of wonder, eyeless sea
Fruits of time in berry tree
Frozen thunder, a buzzing bee
Slouching onward snowcap forms
Fur clad safety, softly warm
Howl the moon then wake the morn
Clatter hoofbeat, a ramming horn
Stoking blaze once crackled high
Smoke-rock campground, kindling dry
Buttered chocolate served with sigh
Huddled newborn, a cheerful cry
Ghost and grayfolk dance the rain
Swing these lovers, known no pain
Barefoot chill-heart hunger flame
Sweat amore, locked in twain
This is the end
This is the end
But this is the pulse
Where beats begin
Ladies’ elder faith restored
Herald six with last uproar:
And nothing more.